Biography of Clemente Susini

Alessandro Riva

Potrait of Clemente Susini. Terracotta by  Egisto Tortori (1829-1893), La Secola Museum, Florence

Potrait of Clemente Susini. Terracotta by Egisto Tortori (1829-1893), La Secola Museum, Florence

Clemente Michelangelo F. Susini1 was the son of Lorenzo Susini and Annunziata Vernaccini, born on December 18, 1754 in the neighborhood of SanLorenzo inFlorence, seventeen years after the end of the Medici dynasty, during the reignof François Stefan of Lorraine, spouse of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria.2

Susini started his studies in art at an early age and became an expert in ceroplastics, but also in glass painting, copper incisions, and manufacture of scagliola.3 In 1771 he enrolled in the Accademia di Belle Arti and was a model student4; in 1772 he was already working in the study of the famous sculptor Pompilio Ticcianti (1706-1777)5,when he was noticed by Francesco Piombanti, Secretary of the Royal Manufacturing, who introduced him to Felice Fontana.6 At the time, Fontana was setting up the ceroplastic workshop of the Regio e Imperiale Museo di Fisicae Storia Naturale (called La Specola7) with the full support of the Grand Duke Peter Leopold, and he hired him as assistant of the Livornese sculptor Giuseppe Ferrini and dissector aid.

The modelling technique of anatomical waxes had been introduced in Florence in 17708 from Bologna by Giuseppe Galletti(1738-1819), surgeon of the Arcispedale di Santa Maria Nuova9.Galletti had hired sculptor Ferrini for the realization of some obstetric and anatomical models that had been noticed by Fontana, who, in 1771, had asked the Grand Duke to finance a ceroplastics workshop within the museum. Peter Leopold was at first against the idea, because of personal aversion for sectorial practices, but then he was convinced by Fontana, who argued that a complete collection of anatomical models would make cadaver dissection useless10. As mentioned above, Fontana, author of the first dissections, hired Ferrini (not with standing Galletti’s protests) and, eventually, the nineteen-year-old Clemente Susini as second modeller and dissector aid. He later hired Antonio Matteucci and the painter Claudio Valvani who, at least at first, made drawings and explicative tables11. In subsequent years more dissectors, modellers, and workers were hired, some of whom took care of specific tasks such as the positioning of blood and lymphatic vessels, and nerves12.

The procedure for the realization of models was long andcomplex13. As opposed to the Bolognese wax sculptures that usuallycontained the skeleton, the Florentine ones did not.

When the museum was opened in 1775, 486 models were exhibited in 137 glass cases placed in six great halls, along with drawings and captions. With the patronage and support of the Grand Duke Peter Leopold, that same year Fontana left for London and Paris to establish relationships with the most important museums and scientific circles in Europe and to implement the scientific tool collection of the new museum14. The workshop’s activity continued even in the five years of Fontana and his assistant Giovanni Fabbroni’s absence; they kept corresponding with the Grand Duke and the protempore Director Giuseppe Pigri, also in order to monitor the work. Upon returning, they incremented the production of models by hiring new collaborators and involving Peter Leopold who, as impassionate chemist, prepared and perfected new varnishes15.

In 1782 Clemente Susini was named head modeller, after Ferrini was fired for being found guilty of fraud, having subtracted silver from the plates used for the models16. According to the same source, Susini was forced by Fontana’s threats to testify against the colleague. Even though there are no specific news on the subject, it seems that Ferrini moved to the Court of Naples, where he continued his activity in the School of Ceroplastics founded by Domenico Cotugno (1736-1822), the third in Italy after the ones in Bologna and Florence17.

Before Ferrini left Florence, Susini had collaborated with him in the making of the famous decomposable statue of a life-size pregnant woman (1,64 meter tall), later known as “Venere de’ Medici.” This gorgeous statue was much appreciated by Fontana who gave to Ferrini and Susini 266 lire, 13 soldi, and4 denari18. Such statue, replicated for the Josephinumwas the first of many more “Venuses” present not just in Vienna but also in Budapest, Pavia, and Bologna. Several imitations, including Antonio Serantoni’s(1780-1837), often called “Florentine Venuses,” were exhibited and viewed for a fee in anatomical museums that became popular mostly in Northern Europe and in England up until the second half of the nineteenth century and beyond. It has been said that these kind of exhibitions filled a void in nineteenth-century Victorian society by offering sexual education and reproductive biology lessons absolutely off limits at the time19. These Venuses, as well as male figures in Michelangelesque poses praised by Canova, well suited Fontana andthe Grand Duke’s intentions of educating not just those destined for the medical profession but also of disseminating anatomical knowledge among the general populace.

In years subsequent to 1782, Paolo Mascagni (1755-1815), known for lymphatic studies, and Tommaso Bonicoli (1746-1802), and Filippo Uccelli (1770-1832) worked for the Museum as dissectors.

Most dissections were modeled after the illustrations published by the most famous anatomists: Fontana, Mascagni, Scarpa, Cotugno, and over twenty European ones, among whom it is worth mentioning Albinus (1697-1770), famous for his tables onskeletal-muscular systems and nerves20. As shown in the Filze dei Conti (accounting files) of the archives of La Specola, from the statements by the anatomist Antonio Scarpa and given that the models reproduce anatomical variants, all specimens found in La Specola were faithfully copied from cadavers21.

In the ceroplastics workshop work was hard, taking up well over eight hours a dayin horrible environmental conditions due to the toxicity of substances used, such as those found in wax solvents and varnishes. According to Tumiati, even though the information is not confirmed by other sources, the preservation liquid used on corpses contained arsenic, which had serious consequences for Susini, who got intoxicated22.

In 1780, the Austrian Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790) of Hapsburg-Lorraine, older brother of the Grand Duke Peter Leopold, accompanied by his personal surgeon and advisor Giovanni Alessandro Brambilla (1728-1800), following his visit to La Specola, had commissioned such a number of models that Peter Leopold had to refuse, as it would have interfered with the activity of the Museum23.The order was later accepted, albeit reluctantly24, by Fontana, who organized a second workshop at his house, hired many collaborators (over 200),and was helped by Clemente Susini and Paolo Mascagni, who supervised the project. In about a lustre, 1192 wax models were produced and transported to Vienna between 1784 and 178825.

According to Lemire26, models realized with original molds, among which many obstetrics specimens, were 150, where as the others were made with casts stored at La Specola. The same author holds that, even though the Viennese collection appears grander and more spectacular than the Florentine one, the quality of models is, all-in-all, inferior to the latter. That is probably dueto the insistent pressure of the Emperor, who wanted the collection to bedelivered promptly and gave a very strict deadline26. Moreover,because of Vienna’s cold climate, models deteriorated and needed to under go numerous restoration processes. Today there are only 365 glass cases left,containing 867 models, 16 of which are full human figures27. Wax sculptures were placed in the Royal Cesarean Medical Surgical Academy Josephina, which was inaugurated on November 7 1785, with introductory remarks by its first Director Giovanni Alessandro Brambilla, titled “The preeminence and use of surgery.” Reactions were disparate and the Viennese medical-scientific community of the time only partially accepted the wax sculptures, considering them spectacles for popular consumption rather than tools for medical-scientific education28.

From 1782 to 1785 Susini, under Mascagni’s supervision, produced several lymphatic statues for La Specola that are not signed; among the twelve in the Josephinumonly model 191 bears an inscription with his signature under the left armpit29. Not only did he participate in the creation of the Viennese wax sculptures, but he corrected some of the mistakes that Mascagni imposed on ceroplasts on purpose in order to differentiate his preparations from Albinus’30.

From 1784 on he was flanked by a second modeler, his pupil Francesco Calenzuoli(1769-1849). Aside from anatomical waxes, he also produced religious statues31and portraits of illustrious people, such as the Director of the Uffizi Museum Giuseppe Pelli32.

From 1799 on, he was hired by the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, where he taught drawing from live models and administered exams. In the forty years working in the Museum he made or oversaw personally the production of over 2000 models.

Aside from the anatomical wax models for La Specola and Vienna, Susini produced other models commissioned to the Museum, by then famous all over Europe33.

Note worthy among these are the two decomposable statues of a man and a woman with the preparation of lymphatic vases, commissioned by Antonio Scarpa from the University of Pavia34, the beautiful head with the preparation ofthe facial nerve made in 1798 for the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris35, and the anatomical wax collection for the Museum in Cagliari with the collaboration of the Sardinian anatomist Francesco Antonio Boi (1767-1850).

The collection is made of only 23 glass cases that host 78 models, therefore, quantitatively, it cannot compare with the one of La Specola and Josephinum,that contain about a hundred cases with about a thousand models. It speculiarity resides in the fact that the Cagliari waxes represent Clemente Susini’s artistic maturity and are the result of his collaboration with the anatomist Francesco Antonio Boi36, who made the dissections37. Moreover, all models are original and some preparations that seem complementary to those of La Specola show, instead, how there are anatomical details missing or less precise in that collection38.

The Cagliari models that were made in the workshop of the Museum La Specolain Florence in the years 1803-1805 were commissioned by Carlo Felice of Savoy, Viceroy of Sardinia, via Boi, who was spending a sabbatical year in the anatomy division of the general hospital (Arcispedale) of Santa Maria Nuova, directed by Paolo Mascagni. In the three years working with Boi, Susini, no longer under the supervision of the old Director, was finally free to express himself: Fontana, in fact, had lost interest in supervising wax works because he was in his private workshop, engaged in fabricating decomposable wooden models commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte39.

It is a fact that the Cagliari models are more realistic40; they include no Venuses or posing subjects, and faces, veritable portraits, do not have the “pinkish skin” of those at La Specola and Josephinum41. Moreover, as happens in modern anatomical atlases, the macabre aspects of the cadaver are not emphasized. Their purpose seems different as well: the many references to clinical anatomy seem to be selected in order to give medical students information useful for their professional training, rather than to make anatomy more attractive for a general public or to educate citizens.

Glass cases contain original tags dated and signed by Susini – an authenticity seal absent from the other collections of Florentine waxes, and even from those bought from the University of Bologna in Susini’s workshop in 181042. Aside from being an example of how anatomy can be turned into art, the Susini-Boi models still retain an extraordinary scientific and didactic value,even two centuries later43.

Not with standing some acknowledgments, it is only in the first years of the nineteenth century that the modellists’ status changed from artisan to artist. In the first yearsof activity of the “Ceroplastic Workshop”44, Fontana considered young modellists as instruments; it is only later, mainly thanks to Giovanni Fabbroni (1752-1822), ex assistant of Fontana’s later turned into his mainrival and critic, that modellists, Susini in particular, began to be properly acknowledged for their role in the production of the Wax Sculptures of LaSpecola45. However, Fontana continued being considered the author of models, as proven by the fact that in 1848 only his name is mentioned in De Renzi’s description of the collection at La Specola46.

Later on, when wax sculptures lost their popularity at the end of the nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth, Susini became utterly unknown47.Still today, the wax sculptures of La Specola are associated with Fontana’s name alone in all of Northern Europe.

The first historical-scientific essay that mentions Susini’s name as the author of the Florentine waxes is Luigi Castaldi’s (1890-1945), anatomist at the University of Cagliari, written in the early Forties and published post humously in 1947. Such study, which can be bought from the original publisher, is widely cited and much appreciated; as Knoefel writes: “this essay has never been surpassed.”48

Perhaps, it is because they were attributed to Susini rather than Fontana, and thus considered as minor works of the Florentine school49, that the wax sculptures in Cagliari were not removed from that city.

Aside from the engagement at the Accademia delle Belle Arti and his work at La Specola, in the last decade before Susini’s death, he produced many anatomical waxes in his Anatomy Study, as proven by the 24 wax sculptures commissioned fro 1814 on by Professor Alessandro Moreschi (1771-1826), still exhibited at the Museo Luigi Cattaneo in Bologna50.

Recently51,the anastatic reprint of the 1813 original of what looks like a 44-page advertising brochure has been published; it bears the title “Gabinetto D’Anatomia Umana e Comparata eseguita in cera dal celebre Sig. Clemente Susini” (Human and Compared Anatomy Study executed in wax by the illustrious Signor Clemente Susini) and it describes minutely thirteen tables and the figure of are clined, pregnant woman decomposable in 16 parts. Nine tables depict human anatomy, while the tenth shows the three most common cases of extra-uterinepregnancy; the eleventh shows the anatomy of silk worms, even in the chrysalis and butterfly stages; the twelfth the nerves of a veal’s head52.

In the final years of his life, Susini’s health was compromised by a chronic disease; his economic situation was equally precarious, as shown by the fact that, after his death on September 22 1814, the Grand Duke Ferdinand III granted his widow, Rosa Pieralli, a sustenance pension, recognizing the workdone in forty years at the Museum. Of his three sons, only Angiolo survived himby two years; the premature death of his sons was possibly caused by contagion,since their father had contracted tuberculosis in the unhealthy environment of LaSpecola53.

After his death, Susini was remembered in an anonymous obituary notice that appeared on the Gazzetta di Firenze on October 15 1814 and in a Latin inscription placed on the marble of his tombstone in the Cloister of Santissima Annunziata in Florence by Count Girolamo Bardi, then Director of the Museum. Both texts are quoted in full by Castaldi, who also relays in translation the Latin inscription written by Bardi: “He surpassed all wax modellers and he won’t be surpassed in posterity”54.

Da: Alessandro Riva, Breve biografia di Clemente Susini. In Le cere vive (a cura di A. Amendola e U. Pastorino); 111-122. FMR-ArcaSRl. Forlì, 2014

(English translation by Chiara Pastorino, Farleigh Dickinson University, New Jersey; U.S)



1 At variance with reports by other authors (Lanza et al, 1979, pag 62; Azzaroli-Puccetti e Lanza, 1984; Lemire, 1990) who ascribe to Susini the middle name Michelangelo followed by the letter F, Castaldi (1947) reports the name Clemente Lorenzo F on the basis of the inscription placed on the marble of histombstone in the Cloister of Santissima Annunziata in Florence by CountGirolamo Bardi, then Director of the Museum.

2 During his living Susini was in sequence subjected to: Peter Leopold (1764-1790), of the latter son Ferdinand III(1790-1801), of the Borbons from Parma (1801-1807), of Elisa Bonaparte-Baciocchi (1807-1814) and , just at the end of his life, ofFerdinand III again.

3 Castaldi, 1947.

4 On January 2, 1772, the Academy of Drawing granted to Susini the award for sculpture reserved to students of the first level course, and the following year the one for the second one. Both these awards were reported by the Gazzetta Toscana (Musajo Somma, 2007, pag 37, n50).

5 Pompilio Ticcianti is the author of the terracottas and the marbles housed in several churches of Florence, and in those of Monte Senario and Cortona.

6 Martelli, 1977.

7 The Museum was named La Specola since, at end of the XVIII Century, an observatory (in Latin: Specula) with a telescope, was built in the highest part of the building.

8 Castaldi, 1947; Contardi, 2002.

9 Riva et al, 2010.

10 Martelli, 1977; Lanza et al, 1979.

11 Castaldi, 1947; Martelli, 1977; Contardi,2002; Musajo Somma, 2007.

12 Azzaroli, 1977.

13 Lanza et al, 1979 ; Poggesi, 1999; Musajo Somma, 2007; Riva et al, 2010.

14 Musajo Somma, 2007.

15 Tumiati, 1942.

16 Maerker 2011, pag 94.

17 Martelli, 1977; Lemire, 1990.

18 Martelli, 1977, pag. 130.

19 Johnson, 2009.

20 Lanza et al 1979; Riva et al, 2010.

21 Martelli, 1977; Zanobio, 2007.

22 Tumiati, 1942.

23 Lanza et al, 1979.

24 See the autograph note reported by Knoefel, 1984, pp. 311-319

25 Schmidt, 1996, pag 104; Maerker, 2011,pag 152.

26 Lemire, 1990.

27 Lemire, 1990; Lukic et al, 2003.

28 Maerkel, 2011.

29 Schmidt, 1996, pag 105.

30 Ruffo, 1996, pag 242 e note 17-18 pag 247.

31 Exhibited even in the Villasanta Museum of Sanluri (Cagliari)

32 Page 93 and note at page 111

33 Azzaroli et al, 1979; Riva et al, 2010.

34 Riva et al, 2010.

35 Lemire, 1990.

36 Cattaneo, 1970; Ballestriero, 2007.

37 Meloni Satta, 1877.

38 Brizzi et al, 2010; Riva e Conti, 2015

39 Castaldi, 1947; Knoefel, 1984.

40 Lemire, 1990; Ballestriero, 2010.

41 Maerker, 2011.

42 Riva et al, 2010.

43 Riva et al, 2010; Morris Kay, 2008; Riva e Conti, 2014

44 Mazzolini, 2004.

45 Mazzolini, 2004; Muajo Somma, 2007; Maerker, 2011.

46 De Renzi, Storia della Medicina in Italia, 1848, Chapter XIII.

47 Tumiati, 1939, 1942.

48 Knoefel, 1984.

49 D’Austria-Este, 1812.

50 Ruggeri e Leonardi, 2014.

51 Nabu Press, 2011.

52 Clemente Susini, Gabinetto D’Anatomia Umana e Comparata Eseguita In Cera, 1813, Carli, Firenze; ristampa Nabu Press,Novembre 2011.

53 Azzaroli Puccetti, 1984.

54 Castaldi, 1947, pag 45-46.

Share this Post

AdminBiography of Clemente Susini