Anatomical theatres of the University of Pisa

The places of dissection from Vesalius to the present day

The Studio Generale Pisano was established in 1343, with the papal bull In supremae dignitatis… In 1472 university education was encouraged, when Lorenzo the Magnificent promulgated an edict according to which the General Studies had to reside in Pisa, where he build the Palazzo de La Sapienza, seat of university studies, including the anatomical ones. Precise data dates back to 1544, when the anatomist Andrea Vesalio (1514-1564) was invited by Cosimo I de’ Medici to hold dissections in Pisa.

Plaster bust of Andreas Vesalius. Gallery of Busts, Museum of Human Anatomy “Filippo Civinini”, University of Pisa

Other figures taught Anatomy in Pisa, including Realdo Colombo, Gabriele Falloppio, Carlo Fracassati, Lorenzo Bellini, Paolo Mascagni, Filippo Civinini, Filippo Pacini, Guglielmo Romiti and Giovanni Vitali. This tradition brought prestige to the medical studies of the Pisan university, allowing an evolution not only of the anatomical discipline, but also of the symbolic place where it takes place, that is the anatomical theatre, and also favoured the birth of the Museum of Human Anatomy, when the Prima Riunione degli Scienziati Italiani was held in Pisa in 1839.

The anatomical theatre of the university

In 1543 Cosimo I promulgated the Statuta, whose chapter LI, De anatomia singulis annis facienda, regulated anatomical studies. One male and one female corpse had to be guaranteed. Carnival was the “time of the cut”, during the cold season. The dissections were carried out far from the hospital, in a building next to the Palazzo de La Sapienza, seat of the first anatomical theatre, and adjacent to the Church of Santa Maria della Neve, and therefore to the Arno river, through which the corpses arrived from Florence to be dissected by Vesalius and his successors. A marble epigraph, affixed to the entrance of this building by Guglielmo Romiti, recalls the first anatomical amphitheatre.

Epigraph commemorating the first anatomical theatre (1901). Photo by the author

Another testimony comes from Guido Guidi (1509-1569), invited in 1548 to give lectures in the Pisan Studio. In De anatome corporis humani Guidi dealt with the constructive aspects of the anatomical theatre. He also described the Pisan one, octagonal in shape, with a partition wall placed behind the dissection table, so as to obtain a room for preparations. It had three sources of light: from the ceiling and from two windows facing each other at the table, near the head and feet of the corpse. The environment was also lit by candles. The body was in front of bystanders, on a rectangular table, slightly sloping. An important change occurred in 1679, when Giuseppe Zambeccari (1655-1728) reported the sporadic progress of a dissection in the hospital. The old theatre could no longer contain the increased number of students and in 1781 the procedures to sell it began.

The anatomical theatre of the hospital

In 1782 Angelo Fabroni presented the new theatre at the hospital of Santa Chiara as a better building. However, interventions were needed to improve its functionality, starting with the construction of a place for body maceration, in an area close to the city walls, away from hospital wards and residences. In spite of this, the fumes created serious problems.

In 1827 the need for a renovation reappeared, also due to the increased number of students. A first project was presented by the architect Alessandro Gherardesca for a construction at the hospital of Santa Chiara, on the side of the new gate. The cost of 43,174 lire was deemed excessive and the project was shelved. The administration then commissioned the engineer Gaetano Pasquini, whose project involved the construction of the theatre in continuity with the facade of the old hospital. The expected cost was 31,013 lire, but the savings went to the detriment of quality. The project was nevertheless approved, despite the limitations highlighted in a report by the medical college. Further perplexities emerged and a new recommendation was given in Florence to consult another engineer, Francesco Riccetti. The new plan featured Pasquini’s original project, in yellowish, and Riccetti’s modifications, in reddish.

Project by Francesco Riccetti: plan of the new anatomical theatre, including two covered corridors and other new rooms obtained from the contiguous building, 1830. State Archives (Pisa): plan c. 401

On November 15, 1832, the Stabilimenti Anatomici were inaugurated, including the new theatre and a museum. Luigi Morelli held an Academic Reasoning on the occasion of the solemn opening of the new anatomical theatre which had seven rows of seats and the walls decorated with Paolo Mascagni’s 44 anatomical tables. In 1848 the Pisan student spirit stood out for its patriotic fervor in the dramatic battle of Curtatone and Montanara. At the end of that year, the request for the design of a new anatomical theatre was sent to the Superintendence of Studies and Health in Florence. Therefore, after just over fifteen years, the Stabilimenti had become unsuitable for the new needs of Anatomy, Surgery and museum collections.

The anatomical theatre in the medical school

In 1865 the Municipality of Pisa decreed the construction of a new building: the Medical School, in via Solferino. The project was entrusted to the engineer Gaetano Corsani and the works contracted, in 1868, to the Francesco Antonini company. The building had three central halls structured as a theatre. The Anatomical Institute, located at the back of the building, had a room with tables for dissection, located to the west. This part of the building allowed, with discretion, the transport of corpses from the adjacent hospital. Between 1907 and 1911 some works changed the architectural morphology. The west side and part of the south side were raised, expanding the spaces of the Institutes of Human Anatomy and General Pathology. The classroom adjacent to the dissection room was organized with raised wooden benches, like a theatre.

The anatomical theatre of the Medical School of Pisa. Cover of La scienza per tutti, 1919

Other changes were made, up to the renovation twenty years ago, with the demolition of the wooden theatre to adapt to safety regulations. No anatomical theatre has survived these numerous interventions.

Gianfranco Natale

Gianfranco Natale

He is graduated in medicine at the University of Pisa, where he is associate professor of human anatomy and director of the Museum of Human Anatomy “Filippo Civinini”. His main research interests are morphofunctional alterations of the digestive tract in neurodegenerative and inflammatory diseases, and history of medicine, with special attention to anatomy. He is member of the Italian Society of Anatomy and Histology, and Italian Society of History of Medicine.