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Seeking Science in Bologna – Part 1

Image of BolognaBologna is a city known for its food. Because of the cuisine, one of its nicknames is ‘the fat one’. Bologna is also known as ‘the learned one’ since it was the first European centre in medieval times to have a university. The University of Bologna boasts that it is the western world’s oldest continuously operating university. The fundamental event in the formation of the first university was the declaration that it be a place where research could develop independently from any other power. In addition, there was a pledge to protect scholars travelling for the purpose of study from the intrusion of all political authorities. With such a history, of course I was eager to visit the University of Bologna, established in the year 1088.

I passed through the Piazza Luigi Galvani in order to visit the university’s first purpose-built home, the Archiginnasio. There, proudly looking down at the passers-by, is the figure of Luigi Galvani featuring one of his iconic dissected frogs. As I glanced up at the monument, it took me back to my university days when we still went through the process of pithing live frogs and dissecting out the gastrocnemius muscle to confirm Galvani’s discovery of a relationship between muscle twitch and electricity. The treatment of vertebrate and cephalopod organisms has improved dramatically since I was a student. These days, it would not be considered ethical to sacrifice live animals repeating a 200-year-old experiment with no chance of producing new knowledge. Current ethical considerations do not, however, reduce the valuable contributions made by Galvani in the late 18th century.


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Back to my original destination, the Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio, built in 1563 to be a single location for all the schools of the University of Bologna. Like most of the buildings in Bologna, the Archiginnasio has a long portico consisting of thirty arches. There are two large halls still in use today, and some of the original ten classrooms have been repurposed as offices for the Medical-Surgery Society and the National Academy of Agriculture. I was most interested in seeing the anatomical theatre of the Archiginnasio. The theatre in Bologna was built along the same general plans and is almost as old. Visiting the room reaffirmed what I previously read about the ways dissection was done in the early days. The professor sat regally on a throne-like seat covered by a baldaquin using his knowledge of Galen’s work to explain to students seated in the stands while the surgeon did the dissection. It was William Harvey who broke from that tradition and began doing his own dissections that led to our current understanding of the circulatory system. The anatomical theatre of the Archiginnasio pays tribute to Aristotle and Galen as well as some other notable historic figures. I was particularly intrigued by a statue saluting Gasparo Tagliacozzi holding a nose in his hand. He was an early pioneer of plastic surgery, using flaps of skin to rebuild noses. I contemplated the historic demand for this service as I recalled that swords and daggers were the weapons of choice in the 16th century.

From the anatomical theatre, I next visited Stabat Mater Hall on the same floor of the Archiginnasio. This hall has been in continuous use since the building opened. It now houses some rare science books. At first I was amazed at the gestalt of the hall, but I soon found myself looking at the minutiae as the book titles and authors drew in my attention. I saw in the collection works by Lamarck, Cuvier and Leonardo da Vinci.

There are several museums making up the University of Bologna system. Unfortunately on this trip, I did not have the opportunity to visit them all. I did make sure to go to the three-in-one: Zoology Museum, Comparative Anatomy Museum and Anthropological Museum, each one occupying a separate floor of the building on via Selmi where they were consolidated in the 1930s. While some of the displays are curated in a modern way, much of this collection has probably been in place since the three museums were united in this building. Some displays may be even older as the collection began in 1819 while Antonio Alessandrini was a professor at the University of Bologna. He developed methods of injecting coloured wax into the various organs to demonstrate blood flow and nervous connections. These proved to be valuable in the understanding of anatomy. The museum seems to be set up so that the university students have easy access to examine the specimens. It seems to me that some very interesting studies could be made from these exhibits. Underlying themes involve evolution, especially that of vertebrates. There was also an area for younger children to manipulate objects and learn about animal adaptations or use basic principles to create and display their own animal designs.

In my next blog, I will be seeking science in a couple of museums that are not a part of the University of Bologna system.

Click here for my entire Seeking Science Series

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Seeking Science in Bologna – Part 1

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