Ercole Lelli was born on September 14, 1702 in Bologna. Trained by the late-Baroque painter Giovanni Pietro Zanotti, Lelli showed from the outset an attitude towards the study of human anatomy, his main focus in the years to come.
The study of anatomy had been widely practiced in Bologna since the late 16th century. At that time, the Anatomical Theater was established inside the Archiginnasio, the main building of the local University, and Bartolomeo Passarotti depicted The Butcher’s Shop, an early example of Italian genre painting, where one of the two sitters proudly shows the dissection of an animal corpse.
Between 1733 and 1734, Ercole Lelli designed two wooden sculptures of Spellati (flayed men) for the Anatomical Theater teaching post, achieving great success. After the Bolognese Cardinal Prospero Lambertini was elected pope as Benedetto XIV, Lelli was commissioned a collection of wax models for the newly founded Museum of Anatomy (1742-1747). These specimens, obtained by careful representation of cadavers used for dissection, laid foundations for the study of medical practice at the University of Bologna. Lelli was also an eminent teacher of design, and in 1759 became director of the Accademia Clementina di Belle Arti, the local Academy of fine arts.
Reference: S. Falabella, «LELLI, Ercole», in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, vol. 64 (2005).
Ercole Lelli, Self-portrait, 18th century, Museo di Palazzo Poggi, Bologna.
Anatomical theater of the Archiginnasio and Lelli’s Spellati. The room was heavily damaged during the Second World War and was later rebuilt, using the original wooden sculptures that were recovered among the rubble.
Bartolomeo Passerotti, The Butcher’s Shop, 1580s, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome.
Ercole Lelli, Flayed men, models made using a real skeleton and wax, mid 18th century, Museo di Palazzo Poggi, Bologna.
Ercole Lelli, Anatomical Figures, 1780 (left) and 1781 (right), engraved by Antonio Cattani, Getty Research Institute.