Anatomy theatres

Anatomy theatres

The University of Padua (the second-oldest in Italy, founded in 1222) hosted a tradition of anatomical dissections dating back to the late thirteenth century from which the work of Vesalius derives. Initially, dissections were infrequent occasions, with temporary theatres constructed for the purpose. By 1583 Padua had constructed a theatre which could be disassembled and stored between dissections. A decade later, the world's first permanent anatomical theatre was constructed in Padua in 1594 and inaugurated in 1595. Still standing today, it provided the prototype for all the theatres constructed in Europe in the seventeenth century. 

Image 1. The basic problem which dictated this design was the challenge of clustering as many people as close to the dissection table as possible while providing each with a clear line of sight. The classic solution to this problem worked out in Padua is impossible to photograph effectively: the wide-angle lens needed to capture the full breadth of the theatre flattens the image of what is in fact a very deep and steeply ranked theatre capable of packing a large number of people into a relatively small space. A proper comprehension must therefore supplement photographs with the plan, section, models, and engravings displayed here. 

Image 2. In plan  -- that is, looking down from above -- the theatre is a set of six concentric ellipses. In scale, the whole construction is quite compact. The central ellipse, wrapped tightly around the dissection table, is only 3.49 metres long and 2.97 metres wide. The space between the railings on each of the five levels is 40 cm, so the outermost ellipse is only 7.56 metres long and 6.92 metres wide.

Image 3. In section -- that is, cutting across the ellipses at their centre -- the ellipses can be seen to form a series five of steeply racked planforms, each with its own railing, against which the onlookers could lean to look almost straight down onto the table. Each level is 92-97 cm. higher than the previous one, so the fifth level is 4.71 metres above the ground level.

Image 4. The resulting configuration is therefore a steep, inverted, truncated, elliptical cone. This tight configuration is only possible because in Padua, the stairs to the upper levels are outside the ellipses: the platforms are reached through the small doorways visible in the model.

Image 5. An impression of the densely packed onlookers is given by this contemporary title page from 1647. The innermost space was reserved for the surgeon and his assistants. The other spectators were arranged by social status and academic seniority. Magistrates and nobles occupied the first circuit, together with senior members of the surgeons’ guild and the medical college. Surgeons, learned physicians, and apothecaries came next.  The larger third and fourth rows were for medical students, while the fee-paying public could fill any space that was left. In addition, some dissected body parts were passed around the theatre, affording those in the upper galleries the opportunity to inspect the more closely. Originally, the windows of the theatre were shuttered and illumination provided by a large candle (visible at the head of the cadaver), which cast the sharp shadows needed to render anatomical details most visible.

A full anatomical dissection took place over several days. For this reason, dissections typically took place during the winter, when the cold preserved the corpses for longer: the abdomen and entrails were dissected first, since they were most prone to decay, followed by the thorax, head and neck, brains, and extremities. Because they were infrequent, these events attracted large crowds: as many as 200 people could cram into the theatre in Padua.

Credits. Howard Hotson, February 2021.

Further reading. Peter G. F. Eversmann, 'What Did They See?: Science and Religion in the Anatomical Theatres of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries', in Quid est secretum?: Visual Representation of Secrets in Early Modern Europe, 1500–1700, ed. Ralph Dekoninck, Agnès Guiderdoni, and Walter Melion (Leiden, 2020), ch. 6, pp. 260-84.