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Anatomical dissections between the 15th and 16th centuries

Before the Anatomy Theatre was completed in 1595, anatomy was taught in Padua through the dissection of corpses in demountable theatres made from wooden galleries that would be put together for the duration of the lessons only.
These dissections would also be carried out in public places, both religious and secular, in the homes of professors or students or even in homes made available by private individuals, in student colleges and in apothecary shops. Professors continued teaching in these places even after the fixed anatomy theatre was built, combining academic lessons with practical training outside of the university lecture halls. No specific instruments or surroundings were required to carry out the dissections. Over time, it was the increasing number of spectators that led to new structures being built, allowing everyone to get a good view.

The first trace of a demountable anatomy theatre dates back to the end of the 15th century and is found in the book “Anatomice sive de historia corporis humani” by Alessandro Benedetti. Andrea Vesalio, a professor of anatomy and surgery in Padua from 1538 to 1542, then used this image as a monumental title page for his greatest work, entitled “De humani corporis fabrica”, published in 1543. This was probably the same theatre where he held his lessons, assembled in the ancient courtyard of Palazzo Bo.

The corpses that were dissected belonged to individuals who had been condemned to death. They were not allowed to be from Padua nor from Venice and the bodies normally came from the nearby Piazza Capitaniato where executions were carried out. It is likely that they were delivered along the canals that are now buried underground.

Contrary to popular belief, the Church did not object and autopsies were carried out freely. Part of the money destined for anatomy lessons was used to hold solemn funerals for the bodies that would undergo dissection. These ceremonies were held in St. Martin’s church, situated in front of Palazzo Bo.