On my twenty-seventh birthday, 19 Jan 2012, I woke up in Florence, and walked across the Ponte Veccio to the Florentine Museum of Physics & Natural History: La Specola.
The sky was gloriously grey: unlike in London, where the sky often throws a heavy blanket of gloom over everything, this grey only enhanced the spectacular beauty of the yellows and oranges of Florence. If Provence is blue and purple, Florence is yellow and orange. I went back to La Specola a few days later on a gorgeous, sunny, blue-sky day, when I took the above photo.
I can hardly describe how thrilled I was to walk past the Pitti Palace and find the doors opening into the courtyard of the Museum. I ascended the stone stairs, taking in the echoes, the cold air, the dim sunlight – drawing nearer and nearer to the waxworks. She was in there, the Venus, the centrepiece of my poetry play, Venus Heart.
These six rooms of waxworks have been on display to the public since the Museum opened in 1775. These six rooms of waxworks have been on my mind since 2009, when I first heard a reference to the Museum Porter, whose job it was to collect body parts from the Orphanage and Hospital, bring them to the wax workshop, and dispose of them in the cemetery. He immediately became a character in something I knew I had to write. At the time, I didn’t even know it would be poetry.
These six rooms of waxworks have obsessed me through my reading of Anna Maerker’s book, ‘Model Experts,’ and scores of material which the Wellcome Library holds about wax anatomies, dissection, vivisection, pigments, and wax materials. The more I read, the more poems I began to write. Even though I felt, for the sake of any kind of commercial sense, that the subject should be a novel, I found myself writing poem after poem in the voices of historical characters I’d read about.
And these six rooms of waxworks have been my main focus for my time in the south of France, when I re-worked, and newly wrote, a total of 53 poems, to make a book, a verse play, based on the history of the waxworks, and the myth of Pygmalion. So poetry it was to be. But not only for the page: we’re pursuing this for performance. It’s aural and oral; it’s visual and tactile; it’s a sensory experience. Seeing the waxworks, I hope you can appreciate why.
So it was with hardly-suppressed excitement that I bought my €6 ticket from the lovely blond girl in the freezing Museum reception, and made my way through room after room after room of taxidermy, to reach the waxworks.
And they were as glorious as I’d imagined. They were truly spectacular. I made my way slowly through the rooms, overwhelmed with a mixture of dumbstruck awe, and swirling thoughts. I had invented the context for my fictionalised waxworks because I had been working out of context with them. They are presented largely out of context, so I had been free to invent the idea of the model workshop, and idea of the space, an idea of the characters.
My story evolved into an insular world with five voices, whereas Anna Maerker’s research illustrates the extremely busy, multi-person nature of the workshop. Being in the building, I was struck by how vast it was. The Museo La Specola is enormous: not like the Natural History Museum (that’s a different scale,) but wonderfully empty and echoing, with many floors and store-rooms I was’t (on this trip, at least,) to gain access to.
The waxes are in their period settings; the silk is rotting, the paint on the wood cases is chipped; the glass is watery. Tanya Marcuse’s photographs do great justice to their immediate context, and were essential in my research and writing, but there is nothing to describe the awe of walking into rooms filled with pieces of human bodies. I had spent so long considering the making of a waxwork, the piece apart from the whole, that the whole bowled me over. This is man (and woman) inside-out, from every angle.
Possibly the most dramatic part of my visit was this: So absorbed was I walking from room, from glass-encased wax to wax, that I was only ‘snapped out’ of my reverie by a woman politely but firmly ushering me out of a room. I looked up and realised I’d walked straight through a temporary plywood door with a large ‘Do Not Enter’ sign. Behind the woman, in the next room, I could see three of the Venuses – the female figures. The ones I’d been writing about (though not ‘The’ one – more on that in a moment.) The woman was just closing the door when I said, ‘wait!’
She stopped. I explained myself. ‘I’ve written a book about the waxes – the Venus – and I’d so like to see them, please.’ She looked behind her. The rooms had been disrupted; cases were moved and pushed aside; a few aides were busily working. ‘I suppose you can come in for a quick look,’ she said, ‘but don’t get too close – they’re very fragile. We’re doing conservation work on this room…’ she began. I followed her in.
I found out that the lady was the Museum Curator; they are doing conservation on both the rooms – the paint, the ceilings, the floors – and the waxworks themselves. It’s extremely difficult to find people qualified to clean and maintain the waxes. I stared at the three reclining, life-sized female figures, their guts spilling out onto the velvet. My fingers itched to take photos (which is allowed,) but I looked, quickly, and thanked her, and left them to their work.
She shut the door behind me: I returned to La Specola a few days later, and the rooms were entirely shut off. I cannot believe my timing.
But the best was yet to come, because The Venus – ‘The Doll,’ the life-sized female figure who is whole, but dissectible; the one that comes apart entirely, and the centre to my story, ‘Venus Heart,’ is in her own room. She lies in the centre; the walls surrounding her hold obstetrical models. Walking down the hall, my back turned from the larger-than-life skeleton which waves with a ‘hey, what’s up!’ kind of air, I pass the arched doorway, and – she’s there. Just as she’s always been.
She takes my breath away. I’d been telling myself that after all of this research, all of this imagining, La Specola and the waxworks will not be as amazing as I think. They will not be what I’ve trumped them up to be. They are as good: better.
The waxes were also put into a larger context for me by my pilgrimages to the ‘Spedale deli Innocenti,‘ the Orphanage from which infant specimens were procured, and the Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova, the Hospital from which adult specimens were collected.
I visited first the Hospital, then the Orphanage, late in the evening, when the sky stretched out (won’t finish that line – infer pun) and found, to my great delight, that the Orphanage has a museum / exhibition, which is open until the late hour of 7pm. Context! History! Objects! (I’ve been writing for two months, dear Readers, please give me a break while I descend into giddy incoherence…)