In 1701, the wax sculptor Gaetano Zumbo is invited to the Court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de Medici. His talent in is portraying the human form in various states of decay – anatomically correct, each figure set in a box recreating scenarios, as chilling memento mori.

Zumbo is well received in Florence and befriends anatomists and physicians at the local hospital Santa Maria Nuova. But he cannot fathom why he has been invited until he meets the Grand Duke himself. Cosimo confesses the misery of his marriage to the much younger Frenchwoman, Marguerite Louise. She has left him, yet he loves her still. He asks Zumbo to fashion a wax woman for him—but the artist must be careful because Florence—under Cosimo’s own pious orders – is becoming increasingly intolerant of sexual deviation of any sort. Spies are everywhere.

Zumbo is given the corpse of a young woman, mysteriously drowned, and makes a cast of her body. Then he finds a way to make the dubious project “acceptable” by concealing a fetus inside her removable but flat belly.

Meanwhile, Zumbo spies a beautiful woman in an apothecary shop – and spends a long time searching for her. Her name is Faustina, and eventually they begin an affair, which is deemed unacceptable. They must flee from a murderous Dominican priest who plans to torture and kill them both.

Without giving too much away, the ending is poignant.


Based on the life of the real wax sculptor, Gaetano Giulio Zumbo (1656-1701) and the real and unhappy marriage of the Grand Duke, this novel features wax modeling as a method of anatomical research. 

Wax modeling arose in fifteenth-century Italy and was practiced throughout Europe, as anatomy became ever more important to artists and to medical education and cultural erudition. Waxes could be more vivid, longer lasting, just as accurate, and less smelly than the usual ways of preserving and portraying real body parts. Many details are provided about the technique. 

The self-taught Sicilian, Zumbo, developed his procedures more as an artist than as a medical investigator, but he worked with anatomists and physicians.

The novel also evokes the atmosphere of Florence in its early modern decadence.  Women are chattel. Dreams are seamlessly woven into the narrative, teasing the boundaries between reality and imagination. The fictitious love story results in several liberties being taken with what is known of Zumbo’s life, but it provides an added vehicle for exploring early eighteenth-century Tuscany. The murderous Dominican seems to have been inspired by Savonarola who had died some two centuries earlier. His vendetta adds suspense but is unconvincing.


Anatomical models in wax, including some of Zumbo's own works, can be visited in Florence at La Specola museum.



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