By Ilona Kauremszky

Q: I am a medical student and will be visiting Florence for a day in early June. I'm not interested in all the touristy things. Is there something off the beaten path that's worthwhile?

A: Anyone can be discouraged seeing the mob of tourists strut through the Duomo or the long line ups at the Uffizi Gallery. So perhaps an alternative tour might be more fitting, given your specialty in medicine.

Tucked away off a winding narrow street in the Oltrarno - which is the home of the famous Boboli Gardens and Pitti Palace - stands a building constructed during the time of the Medici's.

Known as La Specola, it was opened to the public in 1775, and is the oldest scientific museum in Europe. It holds the largest collection of anatomical wax figures in the world, manufactured between 1770 and 1850, and it has over 3,500,000 animals, of which only 5,000 are on public display. La Specola has over 1400 wax models contained in 562 cases. Everything from the calligraphic inscriptions in Latin to the statuesque posture of the stuffed hippo is there for visitors to marvel.

What's interesting about this museum is that the Medici's, started this collection. Between the end of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, Florentine artisans under the skilful tutelage of anatomist/artist Filippo Uccelli and the great Paolo Mascagni created the wax figures by dissecting cadavers.

The story has it that these local doctors/artists traipsed through the dark streets to Santa Maria Nuova hospital in search of subjects who were later studied in every detail, layer by layer. Today, the female and male form can be seen very graphically as they first appeared centuries ago. Warning: This part of the tour is not intended for the faint of heart.

If that's not alarming, perhaps three small scenes known as the 'Plague Waxes', which are not only artistic works but anatomically correct, exhibit the frightening subjects popular among some artists during that period.

If your visit occurs on the second Sunday of the month, a lovely open-air flea market is open in nearby Piazza Santo Spirito and can be a nice tonic to the spine-tingling tour. Antique dealers line up and show off their treasures. It's a great place to find a bronze door knocker or a copper pot.

La Specola is located in the National Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology on Via del Proconsolo 12. The hours are 9:00 am -1:00 pm week days and Sundays. Closed on Tuesdays. The local transit takes you there as well.


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