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Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
A wax model of the human body arouses the strongest of emotions. The three-dimensional representation of our muscles and nerves, blood vessels and organs, is unsettling and fascinating in equal measure. Primarily a dispassionate medical tool for education, such a model offers us a scientific and literal insight into our very own body, in a way that we would never hope to experience in corporeal reality.
No wonder, therefore, that the late Augustine (Lily) Binda and her husband William Bonardo enjoyed for their collection such an enthusiastic response wherever it was exhibited. The collection comprises some 350 individual instructional models in wax, weighing over 10 tons in total, and covering such diverse subjects as the growth of the foetus and childbirth, the physical effects of alcoholism, techniques of bandaging, individual physical anomalies and beyond. It is an anatomy lesson, a page of medical history, and a work of art; composed of figures and organs of unrivalled quality of workmanship, it displays an astonishing, visceral realism in its depiction of physical deformities and diverse medical operations, with a scientific lack of prudishness and a surgical precision.
The collection was first put together from a variety of sources by the Swiss painter Léonce Schiffman at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. Little is known of the artisans who produced these extraordinary works, beyond a handful of signatures, but most, if not all, were from Germany. It is almost certainly unique as a private collection of wax medical models, although there are comparable pieces scattered throughout the museums of Europe (the finest being at La Specola in Florence). The collection made its way to Switzerland during the Great War, its transport van being used as a cover for the German secret service, and it travelled and exhibited around Switzerland for many years (Léonce Schiffman's exhibition catalogue from this time is included as Lot 1) before being inherited by Lily Binda.
Lily Binda and William Bonardo were both travelling carnivalists. Binda was in fact something of a legend amongst the travelling showmen of Europe, and certainly remarkable for the success and renown she enjoyed in a world dominated by men. Prior to the acquisition of the wax museum, she specialised in physical anomalies, most often genuine, although recourse to the elaborately-presented illusion was a well-worn fallback in the world of the fairground. Her apparently genuine attractions included an "elephant-man" from Algeria; a "lion-man" called, appropriately enough, Lionel; Atlas the Giant, who was shown at the Paris Exhibition of 1937; Bertha the Giant, who stood 2.7m tall, weighed 185kg and ate 2kg of meat a day; and, perhaps most intriguingly, the woman with the head of a cow. The most audacious of the illusions was the impressive-sounding woman who was just a head, but with the tentacles of an octopus.
By the 1960's, however, the Europe-wide laws governing the exploitation of human anatomical anomalies had almost entirely put an end to the tradition of the circus "freak-show". And so for many years Lily and Willy toured their wax museum around the fairgrounds of Europe, in a specially-converted van and accompanied by their collection of giant musical organs, attracting the attention of the public, of museums and of local television. Those who entered beneath the banner bearing the words "Humains Mystères", however, hoping for the same kind of sensationalist thrill delivered by the giants, the centaur or the "woman with no head" who had worked with Binda in the past, were in for a surprise: the models in the collection were not constructed with the intention to shock or to titillate, but to educate and inform. And as Lily Binda herself explained to a journalist in the 1970's: "One did not come in order to laugh. It was a serious attraction. I saw men enter blind drunk, and leave stone-cold sober".
In fact, all Lily and Willy were doing was continuing a tradition that had its birth in the innumerable programmes of sanitation and public hygiene launched all across Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. The most effective way to combat the prevalent maladies of an era is to educate the public; governments and public health bodies of the nineteenth century did not have the resources that we enjoy today, where television, the internet and the printed media can circulate information to the entire planet simultaneously and instantaneously. So sanitary and hygienic instruction had to be taken to the people, and in places where they could gather and learn in significant numbers; it was purely by presenting in public - and popular - forums two and three-dimensional depictions of the ravages of syphilis, of tuberculosis, or of alcohol, that information on these and other mental and physical afflictions was disseminated. And as the working people were the most often affected by such illnesses, as well as being regarded as the class most in need of moral as well as medical education, the fairground or carnival was the perfect vehicle for such exhibitions. But as curious and ready to be scandalised as such a public was at the promise of bald depictions of human - not least reproductive - anatomy in all its glory, the words of Lily Binda hold true: it is a serious matter.
As indeed it always had been. At the other end of the spectrum from the public halls and the fairground, the study of anatomy obviously occupied a privileged position among the medical sciences. Wax had been used as a tool to represent the human body for centuries, but the nineteenth century saw huge advances in knowledge of the workings of the anatomy. Before the development of such modern techniques as the X-ray and ultrasound, the models were indispensable to the teachings of medicine, and the wax enabled sculptors to produce the illusion of human flesh and tissue with astonishing verisimilitude. Models depicting specific conditions or anatomical anomalies were specially commissioned from the artisans, the most renowned of which were to be found in Germany and France, whose works could be found in classes of general anatomy, pathological anatomy, dermatology, embryology, obstetrics, teratology and phrenology, in medical institutes all across Europe. Through detailed and specific three-dimensional representation, the models allowed students to recognise and diagnose symptoms of countless diverse diseases, injuries and pathologies, following which visual instruction they were then able to proceed to their practical studies and to more robust models made from cloth and leather.
Even today, when technology has far outstripped their original purpose, the models have lost none of their power. It was an eerie experience to walk through the large, echoing warehouse in Collombay-Muraz, Switzerland, where the collection has resided for the several years following Lily Bonda's passing, peering through dusty glass at the faces within. The often melancholy and always exquisitely-rendered expressions that stare at us with 120-year old eyes, and the delicate coverings placed over the genitals and female breasts of these young women and men with their stomachs and torsos laid open, present us with an unsettling juxtaposition of the personal and the starkly scientific. Quite aside from the staggering reproduction of the tones and textures of living tissue, the almost organic nature of the wax used to create the models sharply parallels that of the human body. And so today, certain parts of some of the figures show signs of their age: cracking and melting, discolouring and softening; some in need of, and some the grateful recipients of "healing" repairs to their fragile flesh. We are reminded too of the pilgrims who, to certain healing shrines, will bring wax offerings in the form of their own limbs or organs that have been saved, to be offered at the feet of their patron, their saint, the Holy Virgin or the miraculous Christ. And of course, even at such a distance in time, the models offer us an inescapable reminder that the human body has not changed so very much in the 120 years since the models were first created.
From the extraordinary life of Lily Binda and William Bonardo, Christie's is proud to present the astonishing precursors to the innovations and technologies that have brought medical science up to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Observe the human body, artfully presented in all its intricacy, delicacy and diversity by the highly-skilled artisans working in the medium of wax at the educational vanguard of nineteenth-century medicine. From fairgrounds and public halls, to medical faculties and institutes, follow the cry of Lily Binda: "Roll up! Roll up! Ladies and gentlemen! Come and discover the mysteries of Human Life!"
THE LÉONCE SCHIFFMANN CATALOGUE