Tucked away in the winding streets of Bologna sits an incredible museum— featuring some of the most beautiful and scientifically revolutionary pieces in the history of mankind.
The palazzo itself was constructed for the noble Poggi family in 1549 by Bortolomeo Triachini. One of the Poggi brothers who commissioned the building was a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church. In a grandiose display of the family’s status and wealth, the ceilings and walls of the museum are decorated with Mannerist and early-Baroque frescoes dating back to the building’s construction. The gilded gold detailing of the room loomed over me with haunting gravity as I entered the museum. Although beautiful, the frescoes and gold-leaf crown molding ooze with the inescapable decadence of the family’s wealth. Not-so-hidden among the frescoe’s mostly Christian subject matter are large depictions of the Poggi family crest. Even at first glance, it is obvious that this room was decorated with one goal in mind: to advertise and further elevate the family’s social standing.
In 1714, the building became home to the Instituto dell Scienze of Bologna, or the Scientific Institute of Bologna. As part of this institute, the collection at Palazzo Poggi comprises the first ever museum of Natural History. In 1561, Bolognese noble scholar and dedicated zoologist Ulisse Aldrovandi began collecting and preserving specimen to put on display. His collection, on display in Palazzo Poggi, consists of over 18,000 specimen including fossils, crocodiles, foxes, and many marine life creatures. His book, Storia Naturale, was the most complete description of the three kingdoms of nature at the time. The bizarre juxtaposition of preserved animal corpses and gaudy sixteenth century frescoes left me simultaneously intrigued and uneased.
Although the museum includes a large variety of intriguing topics including drawn plans of how to construct secure medieval towns and even the tools used in the first ever physics and chemistry experiments, the wings that are most captivating are the obstetrics and anatomy sections. Prior to the 1700s, the area of obstetrics had been considered the work of midwives and not at all scientific. In the 1800s, the field evolved in to a medical practice and was introduced to the teaching regimens of all doctors and surgeons. A man named Giovanni Galli, a surgical professor at the University of Bologna in the mid 18th century created a school of obstetrics at Palazzo Poggi. The program included the use of three-dimensional clay models of fetuses in varying stages of development and with varying physical deformities inside clay uteruses. The collection, created without the use of modern technology, is incredibly anatomically correct even by today’s standards. Surgeons and midwives in the school of obstetrics used the interactive models to practice birthing techniques and to diagnose fetal malformations. The dioramas are so lifelike that the room almost demands a hushed silence. Since visitors encounter the fetal models directly after observing the preserved corpses of many animal species, the clay fetal models command a life-like human respect. While walking through the obstetrics room, I frequently returned to certain clay models of malformed or out of position fetuses, and contemplated the complex and dangerous potential of human birth. The technological advancements and detailed anatomical precision practiced by these people in a time before ultrasounds or modern technology is almost other-worldly.
The neighboring anatomical waxworks of the early 18th century are even more compelling in their precision and scale.. Ercole Lelli, a director at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, created the first ever full-size, anatomically correct wax figurines of the human body and its systems in 1747. The works, commissioned by Pope Benedict XIV, illustrate the different muscle structures and bones in the human body. Later 18th century models by Anna Morandi and Giovanni Manzolini depicted sense organs, the uro-genital and the cardiovascular systems. For religious purposes and by order of the Pope, surgical students were not allowed to study and dissect human corpses for medical reasons except during the forty-day period of Lent. Without these incredibly detailed and accurate wax models, surgical students would not have been able to study anatomy for the vast majority of each year. These wax figures revolutionized the medical world and led to many advancements in technique and surgical efficiency. Today, over three hundred years later, these wax figures are still incredibly accurate tools to learn the specifics of human anatomy.
What stood out to me the most during my visit is the fact that a society so culturally and chronologically distant from our own had an understanding of the structure of the human body almost identical to ours. Despite having strict religious bans on human dissection for the majority of the year and having no access to technology that would allow for scans of the insides of live bodies, the collections at Palazzo Poggi demonstrate that 18th century grasp on anatomy and design is well-beyond its time. In typical Italian fashion, the figures are not only scientifically accurate, but are also beautiful in an almost idealized manner. The skeletal figures all stand in the Renaissance position of contrapposto, and their limbs move and bend with humanistic grace. The artists not only built works of scientific significance, but also managed to give the figures a liveliness and spirit. The result is an eerily beautiful celebration of the the human form, leaving nothing, including seemingly unpleasant anatomical systems, out of view.
While Bologna is most often recognized for the history of its architecture, its fine art, or perhaps even its later communist ties (known as the Red City by Italians), the astounding history of the works in Palazzo Poggi are not as widely recognized. My stop in this hidden haven of scientific history and wonder was by far the highlight of my weekend in Bologna. While a scientist may walk away from the collection and appreciate its anatomical correctness or medical precedence, I left strongly impacted by the models’ ethereal and raw beauty. As a student of art history, I saw the pieces as more than fine examples of human anatomy. To me, they were graceful, yet honest, depictions of what it means to be human—an appropriately-timed visual reminder of the systems that twist and churn and pump inside all of us regardless of the century or continent we were born a part of. Now, as I leave my quarter immersed in the rich history and incomparable culture of Florence, I smile at the idea that after looking beyond my modern cultural facade, Ercole Lelli’s anatomical wax sculpture of my body would not look much different than those pictured above.