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Opera di Cera

by Kelley Swain

'Here I have a tale to tell, of how the wax was made…'

In her magnificent new verse drama, Kelley Swain takes us to 18th-century Florence, where the Museum of Physics and Natural History is creating its most famous waxwork, the anatomical Venus: a life-sized female figure who comes apart to reveal a foetus in the womb.

Yet behind the exquisite craftsmanship and beauty of the finished waxwork lies an extraordinary tale; a macabre romance which plunges the reader into a sensual underworld of gluttony and lust, perfection and power. The fates of model, modeller, Museum Director and the deformed porter Cintio are soon intertwined; but who is watching whom as the Venus nears completion?

In Opera di Cera, Swain combines Pygmalion myth and historical research to create a unique, compelling and stunningly poetic literary achievement; a tale of triumph and tragedy, of dissection, bondage, love and sacrifice – a tale that will have you gripped down to the final, chilling lines.

Opera di Cera is stylistically ambitious and linguistically delicious. A verse drama in five voices set in Renaissance Florence, its formal intricacy reflects its period but the piece also contains passages of gore and grotesquerie that sometimes make it feel like a Victorian ‘Penny Dreadful’. It balances deftly on the knife-edge of Enlightenment and despoilment.”
— Simon Barraclough

“Swain’s verse is steeped with a variety of forms and allusive, sensual imagery: the reader can almost smell the flesh, wax, and blood-lust of the back-streets of Florence over 200 years ago. Opera di Cera is a triumph of sustained imagination, meticulous research and poetic skill, exploring the little-known area of anatomical wax modelling with originality and verve.”
— Sarah Westcott

“If there has been a more lovely object published recently than Kelley Swain's Opera di Cera I would like to see it ... an intriguing book that will probably reach an audience beyond the scope of much contemporary poetry.”
— Michael Brown

“This is one of the most beautifully-crafted things I have ever read. I’m not a poetry person. Or maybe I am, because I keep coming back to it … the fact remains that it’s very rare for me to give enthusiastic praise to poetry. Opera di Cera is a masterpiece.”
— Rowan MacBean


Kelley Swain was born in Rhode Island, 1985, and is now based in Oxfordshire, working as a writer, editor and educator in poetry, science and the medical humanities.

In 2013, Kelley worked with seven poets and one illustrator to create the anthology Pocket Horizon, which was launched in October of that year at the Science Museum, London. Kelley's verse drama set in 18th-century Florence, Opera di Cera, was published in March 2014.

Kelley's memoir of her years working as a life model, The Naked Muse, was published by Valley Press in May 2016. That year also saw Kelley contributing to the VP anthology Guests of Time, after a residency at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Her first collection of poetry was Darwin’s Microscope, originally published by Flambard Press in 2009, but re-released in a revised and expanded tenth-anniversary edition by Valley Press in 2019.


Edition: Paperback

Date Published: 2014-03-24

ISBN: 9781908853363

Catalogue Number: VP0055

Number of Pages: 88

Cover design by Jamie McGarry

Cover photograph by Tanya Marcuse

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