He was an historical personage, as it happens, born in Sicily, possibly to impoverished aristocrats, certainly in reduced circumstances, and was initially schooled to be a cleric. The records give him the title of Abate. Somehow his talents in the plastic arts emerged (he was self taught) and it was clear that this was a man destined for something other than performing Mass and taking confessions.
Perhaps because he was self taught, his first public appearance as an artist comes relatively late in life, in the 1680s, in Bologna. The work was good enough to encourage to try for Florence, where in 1695 Grand Duke Cosimo III put him on the payroll.
What he created were these strange 3D vignettes, meditations on change and decay. Morbid stuff to modern view, with titles like The Tomb, The French Disease (Cosimo’s son in law was a victim of syphilis) The Plague, The Triumph of Time, they covered an aesthetic niche that seemed to need no apologies at the time. They’re a little much for the strictly Renaissance masters tourist, so you won’t find them in the Pitti Palace or the Bargello** – these pieces are in Florence’s La Specola Museum of Natural History at the University of Florence, a place for people of a different turn of mind.
Cosimo loved Zumbo’s work, and mourned his departure in 1696. “You may find a richer patron, but you will never find one who values your worth more than I do.” Zumbo’s aim was France, the Big Time – but to get there, he needed something of a showstopper to pave the way. For a man as painstaking in his art as Zumbo, this would take time. He set up shop in Genoa and got to work on a Deposition and a Nativity.
Also in town was Dr Guillaume Desnoues, Professor of Anatomy and Surgery to the Republic. The good doctor wanted some visual aids to help in the anatomy lectures he gave to the public. It was big business, comparable to plasticised bodies cut up for our scientific viewing pleasure. Audiences back then reached over two thousand a session.
The problem of decay impeded these lectures as a running enterprise, and his methods of injecting wax into the bodies was only so effective. He had dreams, Desnoues. He had just gotten the body of a woman who had died in childbirth. If he could get a model of that would show the whole thing, he take such a thing to France, and with any luck at all, find a patron in the king. If only, if only-
And then Zumbo walked in, wanting to know something about anatomy. Desnoues was impressed with the models and saw the potential in Zumbo. It wasn’t too far a leap to see that the religious scenes that Zumbo made could translate nicely into purely anatomically correct models. They worked out an arrangement whereby Desnoues would do the dissecting, Zumbo replicating what they found in brightly colored wax. They had, in fact, invented moulage, the art of anatomically correct models.
Alas, the partnership came a cropper when Zumbo started working on some work on the side. It was not in the contract, and when Zumbo walked out, taking his wax head with him and making it his own ticket to a better life in France.
OR- Desnoues was trying to take advantage of Zumbo financially and Zumbo left on his own while the getting was good. Each view has its partisans.
Whatever the truth, it is certain was that on the basis of the head, Zumbo soon had a royal warrant from Louis XIV to be the exclusive manufacturer of wax based anatomical models. Desnoues was furious, but not much more he could do about it other than blackguard the man. It was soon a moot point. Paris seems not to have agreed with Zumba. He died within the year. Desnoues eventually found another partner and continued in the field, all the while continuing to claim credit for the process. History tends to give Zummo credit.
The work lived on, of course. In due course, in the more louche decades of the later 18th century, Desnoues took the show on the road, eventually selling out to an entrepreneur in Dublin, from where it eventually landed in London. Among the curious was the Marquis de Sade, who describes his work in Juliette:
‘So powerful is the impression produced by this masterpiece that even as you gaze at it your other senses are played upon, moans audible, you wrinkle your nose as if you could detect the evil odours of mortality… These scenes of the plague appealed to my cruel imagination: and I mused, how many persons had undergone these awful metamorphoses thanks to my wickedness?’
To each his own. If this happens to be your sort of thing, you might enjoy: www.morbidanatomy.blogspot.com
*He is also the subject of the Antonella Cilento’s novel, Una Lunga Notte
**(actually, before the floods, you would find three of them in the Bargello, but only if you asked. They weren’t the sort of thing that fitted in to the collection on permanent display.)
UPDATE: Of course as soon as I finished this I discovered that Thomson had written his own take on the fellow for the Financial Times, available here. Since he deals with the earlier parts of the man;s life and not the later, I feel somewhat better about leaving this up.