Anatomical Theaters were one of the most important institutions in the history of medicine. They were used in teaching anatomy at early modern universities. In most of the cases – illegally, as they were forbidden by the Catholic Church.
They are called theaters because of their amphitheatrical shape, in the center of which would stand the table on which the dissections of human or animal bodies took place. Around this table were several circular, elliptic, or octagonal tiers with railings, where students or other observers could stand and get a good view of the dissection almost from above and unencumbered by the spectators in the rows in front. In addition, the dissections looked a little bit like theatrical spectacles. For example in the anatomical theater in Bologna, the autopsies were usually held in the accompaniment of a violinist that was supposed to make the whole experience more bearable for the students.
The first anatomical theater was built at the University of Padua in 1594 and is still preserved. Other early examples include the Theatrum Anatomicum of Leiden University, built in 1596 and reconstructed in 1988, and the Anatomical Theater of the Archiginnasio in Bologna (whose building dates from 1563 and the anatomical theater from 1637). So here they are: the most beautiful anatomical theaters in Italy.
Anatomical Theater, University of Padua
The world’s oldest anatomical theater is situated in the Palazzo del Bo at the University of Padua and was built in 1594 by the Italian surgeon and Renaissance anatomist who helped found modern embryology, Girolamo Fabricius Acquapendente. This beautiful anatomical theater, very little in size has six tiers carved from walnut and can squeeze up to 300 spectators. Following the last dissection in 1872, the theater has been preserved, even the original table still stands and now the building houses historic surgical tools and artifacts of medical importance. The bodies which were to be used for autopsies were delivered to the University by the judicial authorities – they were often the corpses of executed people. In order for lessons to be held regularly, so-called ‘stewards’, who had the task of procuring the necessary corpses, were appointed. If you ever travel to Padua don’t miss Capella degli Scrovegni and this fantastic place!
Anatomical Theater, University of Bologna
The University of Bologna hosts one of the world’s most beautiful anatomical theaters. The construction of the anatomical theater of Archiginnasio began in 1636 and was completed in 1737. Each corner of the room is elaborately decorated – with a statue of a woman being offered a thigh bone by an angel and famous physicians like Hippocrates, Galenus, etc. standing in niches. The ceiling is decorated with astrological symbols in the belief that every part of the body was placed under the guardianship of a zodiac sign.
The two most famous parts of the room are the statues of the Spellati, anatomical models displaying the muscles beneath the skin. Unfortunately, on January 29, 1944, during the Second World War, the theater was almost completely destroyed. After the war ended, the theater was rebuilt using all of the original pieces.
Anatomical Theater, Ospedale del Ceppo, Pistoia
The Ospedale del Ceppo was established in the 13th century, making it one of the world’s oldest functioning hospitals. It appears that medical lessons were held at the hospital from as early as the 16th century. Anatomy lessons were also held in the Anatomical Theater from the late 18th century. Neoclassical architecture, frescoed with grottesche and medallions displaying pastel colors; the sophisticated atmosphere was in striking contrast with the function of the place. The school was active until 1844. The theater is a rectangular room of medium size, with the anatomy table in the middle and two rows of raised benches for the students.
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