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