The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Digital Library

Late Renaissance and Early Modern Anatomy

Dissection scene

From a drawing by Pier Leone Ghezzi. Original image in Eustachi, Bartolomeo, -1574. Tabulae anatomicae

Anatomy rose in prominence as a source of spectacle and entertainment in the post-Vesalian era. Many Western European universities built temporary anatomical theaters to perform dissections. While the mixed thrill and horror at the experience of the dissected body drew large audiences, the culture of these theaters varied. The dissections at Bologna were often tied to carnivals and festivities. The theaters of Northern Europe at Leiden, Delft, and Amsterdam were associated with curiosity museums and libraries. The most famous intellectual anatomical theaters were those at the University of Padua. Under the leadership of anatomist Girolamo Fabrizio d'Acquapendente, Padua built the first permanent anatomical theater in 1594, what is now the oldest surviving anatomical theater in Europe.

Professors also conducted smaller-scale, private dissections in classrooms, hospitals, and even their homes. These lectures gave a traditional overview of the theories of anatomy, and pointed out recently discovered structures. Anatomical discovery was slow but steady in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Most contemporary illustrated anatomical texts presented new discoveries of authors while maintaining old theories. No one text had the impact of the Fabrica. More important to the growth of anatomical education at this time was the appeal of the Fabrica to the public and to students. In the competitive university system, student needs and opinions began to have a major impact on medical education.