Basilica di San Francesco

The 13th century Basilica of Saint Francis in Bologna (Piazza San Francesco) was one of the historical sites of the University of Bologna. As remembered by a memorial tablet near the back door of the Basilica, the students of the local medical school met here on different institutional occasions until the late 16th century.

At the invitation of the Bologna student body, in January 1540 Andreas Vesalius came from Padua to give a series of public anatomical demonstrations in the cloister annexed to the Basilica. This marked a turning point in the history of anatomy. As accounted by Sherwin B. Nuland:

"The demonstrations in Bologna, being sanctioned by the clergy, were held in the Church of San Francesco. Four tiers of seats surrounded the dissecting table so that every one of the two hundred spectators might have an unobstructed view. The Vesalian dissections began on the morning of January 15, following the completion of five lectures by Corti, during which he used a medieval text, corrected when necessary by reference to Galen. Those, like Corti himself, who believed that Vesalius would utilize his dissections to verify the lecture material were unprepared for what ensued. The students, of course, well knew what maverick rumblings they might expect—this was indeed the reason they had invited their guest anatomist—and the buzz of their anticipation was palpable, though apparently not shared by the professors sitting on the benches beside them. They were not disappointed. Over the course of the next several weeks, Vesalius found new discrepancies between man and ancient text, and for the first time began to wonder whether they had been caused by something more than mere dissecting error or misinterpretation. It was while comparing the skeleton of a human with that of an ape that he noted a bony structure in the anthropoid’s backbone that was not to be found in the human’s; this structure being a well-known staple of Galenic anatomy, it occurred to him for the first time that the Greek might never have dissected a human body. Since six dogs and other small creatures had been provided for the dissections, he was able to identify certain other parts that are present only in animals. Thus did the truth dawn on him. He who had previously been so reverential of Galen that he had on occasion withheld his own opposed findings from his students decided that all such deceptions must now stop"1.

  • Photos by Luca Borghi ti.supmacinu|ihgrob.l#| (August 2019)

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