The eighteenth-century Anatomical Theatre of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia

From construction to recent restoration
Modena, Anatomical Theater

In 1772, Duke Francesco III d’Este (1698, duke from 1737 to 1780) reformed the University by promulgating the 15 titles of the Constitutions for the University of Modena and appointing a governing body, the Magistrate for Studies. In the same year, 1772, twenty-year-old Antonio Scarpa (1752-1832) was called to Modena to teach surgery and anatomy. He graduated from the University of Padua, where he was a disciple of Giovan Battista Morgagni, and practised surgery at major hospitals in Bologna.

Antonio Scarpa (1752-1832)
Antonio Scarpa (1752-1832)

Thanks to the collaboration of the ducal Opera Pia Generale dei Poveri, responsible for the management of the Sant’Agostino Hospital built a few years earlier at the behest of Francesco III, Scarpa was able to give lessons at the same hospital. The dissections of the corpses were carried out in a small room on the ground floor of the “fabbrica per li venerei” (building for venereal diseases).

Early project ideas

The Messaggiere di Modena (14 February 1772, no. 42) recommended the construction of an Anatomical Theatre at the new State University. Michele Rosa, a former professor of theoretical and practical medicine in Padua, had been appointed president of the Class or Faculty of Medicine in Modena. In a letter sent to the Magistrates of Studies on 18 December 1772, he spoke of the need for an Anatomical Theatre for students of Anatomy, for whom the premises of the Sant’Agostino Hospital were inadequate.

A few days later, in a “Relazione della visita della fabbrica dell’Università” (Report of the visit to the University buildings) that he had written on behalf of Francesco III, Rosa proposed using the premises of the Collegio San Carlo for anatomy lectures. He planned to build an “Anatomical Theatre to be erected in an elliptical shape” in an adjoining area.

In the first project for the Palazzo dell’Università, drawn up according to Rosa’s indications, in the “plan of the lower floor” the design for an elliptical anatomical theatre is clearly visible. This project for the Palazzo was not satisfactory, however, and the construction was entrusted in 1774 to the architect Gian Francesco Zannini, who completed it in 1776.

The Sant'Agostino Hospital block, plan and view from above
The Sant’Agostino Hospital block, plan and view from above
The identification of the Sant’Agostino Hospital block

At the beginning of February 1773, Francis III noted that “the narrowness of the area, where the planned building is to be erected” was unsuitable for an Anatomical Theatre. He therefore allowed it to be built in the Sant’Agostino Hospital block, in the area where the church of San Nicolò was located, which served “as a universal depository not only for the dead of the Civic and Military Hospitals but for the entire city”. The Congregation of the Opera Pia, as stated in the minutes of the meeting of 27 November 1773, agreed and commissioned master builder Lorenzo Toschi to draw up the project according to Scarpa’s indications

Lorenzo Toschi, Anatomical Theater, second half 18th century
Lorenzo Toschi, Anatomical Theatre project, second half 18th century
The Theatre project coordinated by Antonio Scarpa

In the meantime, Scarpa had an old teacher of his, Girolamo Vandelli, a professor of surgical institutions at the University of Padua, send him a model of the Paduan Anatomical Theatre, at a cost of 364 lire: it was an ancient theatre built in 1595 by Girolamo Fabrici d’Acquapendente.

Two other models were made, one by the ducal engineer and architect Lodovico Bolognini, at a cost of 360 lire, and the other by the master builder Lorenzo Toschi. Toschi’s cheaper project, coloured by Luigi Putini, costing 135 lire, was chosen by the Presidents of the Opera Pia who commissioned Count Giovanni Francesco Cantuti Castelvetri to assist with the work, which began in December 1773.

The Theatre construction

For the construction of the Teatro Anatomico a synergy was set up between three institutions: the University of Modena (which bore the entire cost of construction), the Opera Pia (which built the infrastructure), and the Community of Modena (which had the chapel of San Nicolò rebuilt in the area immediately north of the theatre). The Teatro Anatomico was finished in a year and was officially inaugurated on 23 January 1775 (Messaggiere di Modena, 25 January 1775, n. 5).

Lorenzo Toschi’s “Estratto di perizia di collaudo del Teatro Anatomico” (Extract from the report on the Anatomical Theatre) of 16 May 1775, the structure, consisting of a wooden funnel with comfortable seats for schoolchildren, was similar to the one built in Padua by Acquapendente. It was a complete amphitheatre in the form of an ellipse perpendicular to the atrium, but less high and narrow than the Paduan one, with wider tiers of seats and benches.

Anatomical Theater, Atrium, Modena
Anatomical Theatre, Atrium, Modena
The Theatre structure

Five busts of illustrious medical scholars were placed in the entrance or atrium, above the five doors facing it. The busts were made by the Pesaro sculptor Sebastiano Pantanelli for the sum of 135 lire each: Giacomo Berengario (1460-1530), Gabriele Falloppia (1523-1562), Bernardino Ramazzini (1633-1714), Francesco Torti (1658-1741), Antonio Vallisneri (1661-1730).

Sebastiano Pantanelli, Gabriele Falloppia bust (1523-1562), second half 18th century
Sebastiano Pantanelli, Gabriele Falloppia bust (1523-1562), second half 18th century

In his inaugural speech in Latin on 23 January 1775 (Messaggiere di Modena, 25 January 1775, no. 5), Scarpa had demonstrated the importance of studying Anatomy.

After the Restoration, thanks to the support of Franz IV Archduke of Austria Este (1779, Archduke from 1814 to 1846), a new floor was built above the Anatomical Theatre to accommodate the Anatomy laboratories and the Anatomical Museum, in order to expand the space available for teaching medical disciplines. Three more rooms were added to the first one, built in 1817, and the current layout was inaugurated in 1853. Following these works, the theatre took the form of a cavea that it still has today.

The Anatomical Theater, in Il Mondo Illustrato, 1847
The Anatomical Theater, in Il Mondo Illustrato, 1847
The recent restoration and the contemporary art exhibitions

The recent restoration of the Theatre, planned between 2016 and 2017 (inaugurated on 9 February 2018), was part of a repair project started due to the damage suffered by the structure in the 2012 earthquake. The restoration involved the entire eighteenth-century building, in particular the theatre’s wooden cavea, atrium and adjoining rooms. During the restoration, the old marble anatomical tables were also placed in the two adjoining rooms to the east and west.

The restoration made it possible to open the theatre to the public with numerous guided tours organised with the support of the Fondazione dei Modena as part of the Ago Modena Fabbriche Cultural project. The restored theatre was also the venue for two exhibitions, curated by the present writer, of two contemporary artists, still living, which attracted large numbers of visitors. The exhibitions, inaugurated on the occasion of the Festivalfilosofia, were respectively dedicated to Carlo Benvenuto (Gare de moi La follia della verità, 2018) and Hermann Nitsch (Prosopon Persona e aktion in Hermann Nitsch, 2019).

Hermann Nitsch, Ultima cena, Teatro Anatomico, Modena
Hermann Nitsch, Last supper, Anatomical Theatre, Modena

Elena Corradini

Elena Corradini

Ricercatore di Museologia e Restauro all’Università di Modena e Reggio Emilia ora insegna Storia del Restauro degli Edifici Monumentali. È valutatore tecnico-scientifico del MIUR ed è coordinatrice della Rete dei Musei Universitari Italiani ( È stata membro del board e vicepresidente dell'ICOM-UMAC. Dal 1980 al 2006 ha lavorato per il Ministero dei Beni Culturali come Direttore archeologo a Modena, Bologna e come Dirigente a Roma; è giornalista freelance, autrice di quasi 170 pubblicazioni sulla museologia, la storia del collezionismo, la conservazione e la valorizzazione del patrimonio culturale, recentemente sul patrimonio culturale universitario. Ha diretto interventi di restauro ed è stata curatrice di numerose mostre.