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Florence fetes macabre wax model

Work by 17th-century abbot on show after restoration

22 January, 18:13
Florence fetes macabre wax model (ANSA) - Florence, January 22 - A gruesome scene showing a group of decomposing syphilis victims by Italy's greatest 17th-century wax artist has gone on show in Florence for the first time after a painstaking restoration.

The work by Sicilian abbot Gaetano Zumbo (1656-1701) is on display at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure after experts there pieced it together from fragments that were discovered in a storage facility at the city's Palazzo Mozzi Bardini Gallery.

The restorers first cleaned the wax chunks and then reassembled them like a 3D puzzle to partially recreate the macabre scene, which features five human figures who have clearly suffered a nasty end.

A naked man lies face down on the ground and a baby has been abandoned in the background, while a prone female figure and two skeletons are each shown in increasingly advanced stages of decay.

Although the figures are in miniature, they are remarkable for details can only be seen with a magnifying glass, such as the worms crawling inside one of the woman's eyes, a mouse feeding on her intestines, and the tendons and ligaments still attached to one of the skeletons.

Zumbo is famous for his anatomically precise scenes of ruin and decay piled with disease-stricken and putrefying bodies, and it is likely that the newly restored syphilis scene was also once filled with other victims.

Examples of his more complete death scenes, such as The Triumph of Time and The Plague, are preserved in Florence's La Specola Natural History Museum.

Zumbo created the scenes by initially modelling the figures in clay and taking plaster casts.

He then mixed wax, vegetable resin and coloured pigments, stretching it over the moulds in thin layers to create his figures' eerily lifelike skin.

Experts believe the precision of his details was achieved by using tiny spatulas and hot and cold needles to manipulate the wax under a magnifying lens.

Although anatomical wax modelling was first introduced in Florence almost a century before by artist Lodovico Cigoli (1559-1613), Zumbo's model of a life-size head - also preserved in La Specola Museum - is thought to be the earliest surviving example of a wax sculpture made for teaching medicine.

Modelled on a real human skull, the head has wispy eyebrows, moustache and beard and shows Zumbo's trademark grisly details, with blood oozing from its nose and its skin starting to turn green.

Born in Siracusa, Zumbo spent time in Naples and Bologna before being employed by Grand Duke Cosimo III de' Medici between 1691 and 1695, when he created most of his death scenes.

He then moved to Genoa, where he prepared anatomical models for the French surgeon Guillaume Desnoues, before travelling to Paris in 1700 and obtaining a royal privilege from Louis XIV to manufacture his models for teaching purposes.

He died of suspected tuberculosis the following year.

Fans of Zumbo's work included French writer the Marquis de Sade, who said his putrefying models were so powerful that they made him hold his nose ''as an automatic reaction''.

Mirabili Orrori. Unseen Waxes by Gaetano Zumbo are on show at the Museo dell'Opificio until January 31.

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