Anatomical Theatre of Padua

Introduction
The Anatomical Theatre of Padua is the first permanent anatomical theatre in the World. Still preserved in the Palazzo del Bo, it was inaugurated in 1595 by Girolamo Fabrizi d'Acquapendente, who held the chair of surgery and anatomy in the Padua Studium for fifty years1. The theatre was built ex novo according to the project of Paolo Sarpi and Dario Varotari. It is considered an emblematic instrument of the new demonstrative method in anatomy; it is also a symbol of a new approach in teaching anatomy, proposed by Andreas Vesalius in the first half of the sixteenth century2.

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A drawing of the anatomical theatre in Palazzo del Bo, Padua

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Anatomical Theatre entrance, Palazzo del Bo

Background History
Since the foundation of the University of Padua in 1222, the Studium played an important role in the history of anatomy3. In fact, at the beginning of the fourteenth century, Peter of Abano performed the first autopsy we have records for in Padua. He accomplished this result thanks to a well-established tradition in the practice of dissection.4

It is worth noting that only in 1404 the first solemn public dissection was carried out in Vienna.

Moritz Roth, the great Vesalius Scholar, observes:
“If we think that the first dissection undertaken in Vienna was carried out by a professor from Padua, we have the impression that in the fifteenth century Padua at least reached the level of Bologna, if not actually overtaking it.”5

A century passed and, in 1514, with his Anatomice sive historia corporis humani, Alessandro Benedetti promoted the idea of a temporary anatomical theatre, in order to make anatomy a more evincible science.6
After the spreading of Vesalius' works, it became an habit for students not only to study theories, but also to verify them directly. Finally, in 1595, the first permanent anatomical Theatre in Europe was inaugurated: it will have turned a model for the anatomical theatre built in the main universities in the world.7

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The anatomical Theatre, from Giacomo Filippo Tomasini, Gymnasium Patavinum (Udine, 1644)

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General view of the Theatre from above

Architecture
The architecture of the Theatre reminds a funnel: it is an inverted cone inserted in a cylinder, arranged in steps to welcome the students. Since 1822, an important intervention has involved the construction of a different roof with a five-meters skylight to adapt the room to daylight. Furthermore, the installation of a new desk, provided with a simple raising mechanism, was carried out.
February 13,1848 was the official date of the end of the works.
However, on 1872, the Theatre lost its function and partly its aspect because the medical school was transfered to St. Mattia's former convent.
Some years later, Giò Ponti, an italian architect of the early 1900s, worked on the reorganization of interior spaces. In this way, he gave the Theatre its current appearance.8

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Symbolism
It is known that dissections were carried out by professors in their private houses or in the ones of their students until the eighteenth century, even after the introduction of anatomical theatres. That shows how it was the increase of students more than the necessity of cutting-edge equipment to have brought to the construction of the theatre9. Anatomy’s lessons were a matter of pride for the University. The possibility to observe and have experience of a real dissection made the students elated. They could not take notes but only learn by watching. The typical funnel shape of the theatre had the function to use practical experience as a mean to discover man. In fact, it seems that its shape projects the students’ look towards the deepest aspects of human anatomy.10

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A view of the theatre from below.


  • Main text by Marta Avarello and Martina Straffi (December 2017)
  • Photos 1, 6-9 courtesy of Fabio Zampieri, University of Padua; photo 2 by Giovanna Failla; photo 3 by Cristina Madaudo; photos 4,5 by Luca Borghi; photo 10 by Silvia Fattori (October 2017)
  • Locate the item on this Google Map

Bibliography

  • Piero Del Negro, Giuseppe Ongaro, The University of Padua, Eight Centuries of History, Padua, 2003, pp. 11-12, 153-193
  • Camillo Semenzato, Vittorio Dal Piaz, Maurizio Rippa Bonati, Il teatro anatomico, Storia e Restauri, Padua, 1994

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