On March 18, sixteen intrepid Phase I medical students headed to Italy to spend spring break exploring the connections between anatomy and art in Renaissance Italy. Spending three nights in Venice and three nights in Florence, they went on a whirlwind tour of some of the most important sites in the history of medicine and the fine arts.
The highlights of the trip were arguably visits to Padua and Bologna, the two cities most closely associated with the anatomical Renaissance. The University of Bologna hosted the first dissections of human cadavers since antiquity, when Mondino de Luzzi reintroduced the practice in the early 14th century. His teachings would serve as the basis of anatomical education for the next two hundred years. Bologna continued to foster medical innovation through the early modern period, and hosted such pioneers as Ulisse Aldrovandi, a physician who helped establish natural history as a discipline, and Marcello Malphigi, a key figure in early microscopy. In the 18th century, it became closely associated with the production of stunningly lifelike anatomical wax models, which can now be seen in the Palazzo Poggi.
While Bologna is seen as the birthplace of European anatomical studies, the University of Padua established itself as the premier center of anatomy in the 16th century. Andreas Vesalius laid the groundwork for his revolutionary anatomical text De humani corporis fabrica while teaching at Padua, and his successors continued the tradition of producing beautiful illustrated atlases. Padua was also the site of the first permanent anatomical theatre, which was constructed in the 1590s and first used by Fabricius ab Aquapendente, and it is still preserved today in the historic Palazzo Bo, where the students had the opportunity to walk inside of it and look up at where their predecessors once stood.
One of the most striking aspects of Renaissance anatomy in comparison to modern texts is how closely they walk the line between science and art. In order to gain a better understanding of the relationship between culture and anatomy, students also visited Florence’s Uffizi Gallery to see some of the period’s artistic masterpieces. Viewing the works of Leonardo, Botticelli, and other Renaissance luminaries reveals the similarities between anatomical écorché figures and the carefully rendered mythical and religious figures that adorn paintings of the period. However, evidence of the period’s artistic sensibilities is not only in museums—it can also be found in public buildings such as churches and civic halls. Allegory and symbolism are everywhere in Italy’s historic city centers: on building facades, fountains, and statues. When walking through them, it is impossible not to see how deeply art and religion permeated Renaissance life, and how the divide between art and science that we think of today simply wasn’t possible.
We are deeply grateful to Bernard Becker for his generous gift that allowed us to offer this trip to the students at low cost. Dr. Becker was a firm proponent of the history of medicine and its importance to physicians, as shown by the donation of his rare book collection and his support of the Center for the History of Medicine. We are delighted that we could honor his legacy by offering students an in-person look into the history of their chosen profession.