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  • Writer's pictureAnita Isalska

Centre-stage Cadavers: a Tour of the Anatomical Theatre in Bologna, Italy

There are gold embossed crests and splashes of colour all over the walls of the Biblioteca dell'Archiginnasio. You wouldn't expect anything less than regal scrolls and vaulted corridors from one of Europe's oldest seats of learning, the university of Bologna in Italy.

Learning comes at a price, though; and chances are if you were staring at this next exquisitely carved ceiling, you weren't long for this world.

Welcome to the Teatro Anatomico, where operations and autopsies were performed for an eager-to-learn audience of Bolognese medical students across the centuries. If you were gazing up at these flayed wooden figures - notice the skin-crawling care with which their partially dissected bodies have been carved - then it's likely you could expect the razor-sharp bite of a surgeon's saw any moment soon.

But mostly it was dissections of bodies that took place here. They were usually performed under the watchful eye of a priest, presumably to ensure no immortal souls were at risk. This wipe-clean marble slab would be centre stage for an audience of students.

This centre of learning played a crucial role in the history of medicine. The first public dissection at the University of Bologna was performed in the year 1315 by Mondino di Liuzzi, who penned the world's first modern dissection manual, Anathomia corporis humani, a year later. (There's an interesting timeline of dissection's history here.)

Gruesome as it seems to modern sensibilities, learning by directly observing a dissection was the most reliable way for medical practitioners to understand the human body. Corpses weren't always easy to come by (legally) because of taboos surrounding dissection, so it made sense for an entire audience of students to be present when they did take place.

Back among Bologna's ochre-coloured buildings and dramatic towers, it's easy to miss the dark side of the city's intellectual heritage. And in a city famed for its food, the Teatro Anatomico is one gut-churning sight best explored on an empty stomach.


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