This was once the main building of the University of Bologna, Italy’s oldest university.
With the Cathedral of San Petronio, once a church well on its way to outsize St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Fountain of Neptune and the food of Bologna to temp you, why visit? Read on.
The University was founded in 1088. It was not until 1563, when Pope Pius IV commissioned the construction of the Palazzo, that all university classes were consolidated. Until then. classes were housed in various locations across the city. The facade of the Palazzo provides only a hint at the beauty within.
What draws many visitors to this fascinating and historic structure is the Anatomical Theater located on the second level of the palazzo.
In 1637, Antonio Levanti was given the commission to build the theater, first of its kind in Italy. Constructed in both cedar and cypress wood, the theater was used for the first student human dissections permitted in Italy. The “Doctor” as the professor was called, sat on a special seat above the operating area. A large baldaquin rose above him, upheld by carved figures of men with no skin on their bodies – called ‘gli spellati’ in Italian – created by Ercole Lelli. As morose as it may sound, the figures are beautifully carved, as are the busts and other figures in the theater.
Curiosity follows curiosity in this historic room. Statues of the most prominent physicians of Greece and Rome, Hippocrates and Galen, grace the front corners of the room. Directly across from the Doctors seat, above the theater seats, is a small door (often unnoticed by visitors). It was during the twenty-four hour dissections that members of the Dominican Inquisition would open the panel, observe and judge whether or not the teachings were heretical.
Under the watchful gaze of those judging eyes, the Doctor’s three meter pointer would be used to instruct the students in various important details about anatomy. If any of the teachings were judged inappropriate, the Doctor would have to pause instruction, then debate and defend his position.
Travelers have wondered why cedar and cypress were used to construct the theater. One only need imagine twenty four hour dissections, conducted with no break (and no opportunity to leave the room), to imagine why fragrant and odor absorptive woods were used.
In 1838, the gorgeous open rooms that once housed the University library became the home of the Communal Library for the city of Bologna. See IF YOU GO below for details about visiting the library.
This is certainly a unique and unusual corner of Bologna.
So, when you visit the city and have completed your time at the Duomo and the food market areas of the city, I highly recommend a visit to both the library of Bologna as well as the Teatro Anatomico in the Palazzo dell’Archiginassio.
IF YOU GO:
Both the Palace (including the library) and the Teatro Anatomico are open Monday through Friday from 09:00AM to 18:45 (6:45PM). On Saturday, hours are 09:00AM to 13:45 (1:45PM). On Sundays and Holy/Festival days the building is closed to the public.
NOTE: From 1 to 24 August, the building is open only between the hours of 09:00AM and 14:00 (2:00PM) Monday through Saturday. Sundays and Holy Days/Festivals the building is closed.
Over 38,000 manuscripts and incunabula, along with other objects, are now housed in the library. It is open to the public. However, you must leave your backpacks and books behind in a secure area when you register at the front desk. The only exception to allowing computers and other items in the library is if you present a letter of research from a college or university.
The Anatomical Theater can be visited at any time during the palazzo’s open hours.