Skip to content
Università degli Studi di Padova

PHAIDRA – Digital collections



The cultural heritage of the Medical School of Padova


From the plates of comparative anatomy "De formato foetu" by Fabrizio d'Acquapendente. Comparison between the plate drawn and coloured by hand and the engraving of the printed version (Biblioteca Marciana).


Significant texts from the 13th to the 17th century

The digital collection "The cultural heritage of the Medical School of Padova" was initiated in the academic year 2014–15 for the 500th anniversary of the birth of Andrea Vesalio (1514–1564), the man that, as professor of the University of Padova in 1543 with the publication of his treatise De humani corporis fabrica revolutionized the medical art by effecting its passage from medieval medicine to that of the modern age.
The treatise had an immediate and enormous resonance in the international community of medical schools, leading to the abandonment of a medical-scientific approach, based primarily on the written theories of classics, in favour of a new paradigm based on the experimental approach. After the publication of De humani corporis fabrica the discipline of Anatomy, until then neglected, becomes central and will be at the basis of the development of the medical art in times to come; therefore Vesalio can be considered the author of this new paradigm.
Vesalius came to Padova due to his expectation of finding a more advanced scientific environment than that he was living in, in Paris. Indeed the history shows that in the three centuries since its foundation, around 1250, up to the half of the fifteenth century, the Medical School of Padova had been actively and continuosly engaged with an innovative experimental model, acquiring the resonance that persuaded Vesalius to leave the Paris School of Medicine and move to Padova.

In the Gymnasium patavinum (founded in 1222) the teaching of medicine emerges around 1250, with the establishment of the College of Doctors and Artists. The cultural environment is characterized from the very beginning by a strong naturalistic orientation, with the support of the free Commune (XIII century), of the da Carrara Seigneury (XIV century) and, later, from 1404, of the Serenissima Republic of Venice whose patronage defends the development of a science based on the understanding and evaluation of objective evidence, able to free itself from both doctrinal and ecclesiastical impositions.


Pietro d'Abano
Pietro d'Abano (from Iconoteca dei Botanici in Phaidra)
Works of Pietro d'Abano present in the catalogue

At the beginning of the 14th century the figure of the physician is characterized as "philosophus naturae".
The protagonist of this orientation is Pietro d'Abano who teaches medicine in Padova from 1307 to 1313, leaving an indelible mark on the Medical School. A man of extraordinary culture, he lives for a long period in Constantinople to learn Greek and Arabic. A scholar of the original Arabic texts of Avicenna and Averroes, he is the first to translate many of the works of Galen from Greek into Latin. In the Conciliator he proposes to reconcile the differences between the philosophers, that is, Aristotle and in particular his commentators, and the physicians, that is, Hippocrates, Galen and the Arab physicians on the subject of whether medicine can be considered a science ("utrum medicina sit scientia, necne"). He defines medicine as a science that has its basis "in doing by means of experiments".
Pietro is a powerful innovator because he affirms the centrality of direct experience for the physician – "the art of medicine must consider only those things that can be seen or heard" – and is the author of the first reported autopsy in Padova. Repeatedly accused of heresy, he dies in prison. In spite of he is recognized by the School as "the master" and his successors collect and continue to develop his teaching throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. From these premises the Medical School grows in the direction of experimental science and becomes authoritative.


Among the legacies of experimental innovation are the creation, in Padova, at the end of the 14th century, of the codex "De cauteriis" ("Libro de le experiençe che fa el cauterio del fuocho ne corpi humani"). Among the events indicative of the credit enjoyed by the School is the fact that Galeazzo dei Santa Sofia, a professor from Padova, is called from Padova to Vienna where he will teach from 1398 to 1406; note that in 1404 he performs the first public dissection ever conducted in Vienna.


The Practica maior by Michele Savonarola in Internet Archive
The Consilia by Bartolomeo Montagnana in Internet Archive
I Consilia by Antonio Cermisone in Google Books

Dissection is a continuous activity in Padova by the middle of the 5th century and leads to the birth of the anatomical school. We also observe the production of works that are the expression of an intense and refined exercise in the medical art, including the "Practica maior" ("Practica de egritudinibus a capite usque ad pedes") by Michele Savonarola (1385–1466), a successor of Pietro d’Abano, and the two "Consilia" by Bartolomeo Montagnana and Antonio Cermisone, both appearing in 1476.

At the end of the 15th century, printing innovation, with Venice as a centre of absolute importance for this new activity, leads to an acceleration in the sharing of knowledge. The Fascicolo di Medicina di Pietro da Montagnana, a work edited by Johannes Ketham, printed in Venice by the brothers Giovanni and Gregorio De Gregori, in Latin in 1491, and in the vernacular in 1494, groups together the texts regarded as necessary for the study and practice of the art of medicine, and is considered as a "textbook".


"Historia corporis humani siue anatomice" in Internet Culturale (Biblioteca Marciana)

The work of Alessandro Benedetti from the early 16th century, the "Historia corporis humani sive anatomice" was printed in Venice in 1502 by Bernardino Guerralda da Vercelli. This treatise is the first that also defines rules and requirements for the construction and organization of an anatomical theatre. This work is part of a large production that attests to the importance of the art of anatomical dissection in the Medical School of Padova, rich in shared and innovative knowledge, based on a knowledge sustained by theory and practice, unlike the major European medical schools where the experimental approach was ancillary to the written tradition and not much accepted.



Andrea Vesalio (from Phaidra)

It is to enter this environment that Andrea Vesalio leaves the Medical School of Paris, choosing to graduate in medicine in Padova and perform research there. When he arrived in Padova in the autumn of 1537, Vesalio obtains his doctorate in medicine on the 5th of December and is immediately charged with teaching Surgery, with the express condition "that he should read anatomy and practice dissections".
A large audience participates in his lectures – medical students, doctors, writers and illustrious men – and in 1538, following their requests, Vesalio prepares and publishes the Tabulae Anatomicae sex. The volume was printed in Venice by Bernardino Vitali in 1538 and the plates were partly designed by Vesalio and in part by the Flemish painter Jan Stephan van Calcar, a pupil of Titian. Then, with the support of van Calcar and with an impressive stint of work that lasts until July 1542, he produces the revolutionary treatise: the seven books of the "Fabrica" ("Andreae Vesalii Bruxellensis, scholae medicorum Patauinae professoris, de Humani corporis fabrica Libri septem") and a summary of the work, for practical use and for students – the "Epitome" ("Andreae Vesalii Bruxellensis, scholae medicorum Patauinae professoris, suorum de Humani corporis fabrica librorum epitome"). Both works are printed at the same time, in June 1543. The power of the great work, which Vesalio shows, before printing, to Giovan Battista Canani (1515–1579), a professor of Anatomy in Ferrara, impresses Canani so much that it induces this latter to desist from his project of an Anatomy treatise in six books, of which the first volume entitled "Musculorum humanis corporis picturata dissectio" had been published in 1541. Canani communicates to Vesalio his discovery of the valves of the veins, which will later be taken up by Fabrizio d'Acquapendente.
Concurrently with the publication of the two works ("Fabrica" and "Epitome") Vesalio leaves the University, teaching and research and becomes the physician of Emperor Charles V.


"De humani corporis fabrica libri septem di Andrea Vesalio (1543)". Video by Maurizio Rippa Bonati, Giulia Rigoni Savioli, Lorisa Andreoli and Laura Tallandini.


Realdo Colombo portrayed performing an autopsy in the title page of the "De re anatomica" (da Wellcome Collection. CC BY)
"De re anatomica" in Gallica


The "Fabrica", placing experimental knowledge of Anatomy at the centre of the study and development of medicine, marks an epochal transition; Padova, a centre for the discipline of Anatomy is acknowledged as a Medical School of extraordinary importance and remains so, in the 16th century and at the turn of the 17th century, thanks to Vesalio’s excellent successors: Realdo Colombo, Gabriele Falloppio, Fabrizio d'Acquapendente and Giulio Casseri. From the publication of the "Fabrica" in 1543 begins the so-called "golden century" of the Medical School of the University of Padova.

A Realdo Colombo (1510–1559), the first to succeed Vesalio, a professor in Padova from 1543 to 1545, we owe the first description of pulmonary circulation (or small circulation: for the first time the journey of the venous blood from the heart to the lungs, where it is blended with the air and then returns to the heart, is rationalised and described) and the completely innovative observation that the main action of the heart is contraction ("De re anatomica", 1559). Both of these aspects are then taken up by Harvey and inscribed in his blood circulation model.


Gabriele Falloppio
Gabriele Falloppio (from Phaidra)
"Observationes anatomicae" in Internet Archive

Realdo Colombo is succeeded by Gabriele Falloppio (1523–1562) who still refers to direct observation as the first foundation of knowledge ("quoniam ex sensu hoc est cognoscendum, non autem ex ratione"). He was a much loved Professor of Anatomy with a vast range of scientific interests, including knowledge of the "Semplici", his works deal exhaustively with Human Anatomy ("Observationes anatomicae", Venice 1561) and Comparative Anatomy. His production has been repeateadly printed in various forms throughout the entire 16th century and in the subsequent one, in Venice, Padova, Nuremberg and Frankfurt; they become reference texts for generations of physicians – not only as for Anatomy, but, more generally, for the Medicine and its applications.

Falloppio is succeeded by Fabrizio d'Acquapendente (1537–1619) who, with his fifty years of teaching, gives life to a school of famous physicians and anatomists, William Harvey (1578–1657) being the most famous among these.



Fabrizio d'Acquapendente (from Wellcome Collection. CC BY)

Of Fabrizio’s monumental production, we must firts recall his treatise of 1603 De venarum ostiolis. In this work he draws the semilunar valves of the veins for the first time; his illustrations are then reproduced by the former student Harvey in the brilliant work that solves the problem of blood circulation ("Exercitatio anatomica de motu cordis et sanguinis in animalibus", Frankfurt 1628).

A plate from De venarum ostiolis A plate from De venarum ostiolis of Fabrizio d'Acquapendente (from Phaidra)
A page from Exercitatio anatomica de motu cordis et sanguinis in animalibus A page from "Exercitatio anatomica de motu cordis et sanguinis in animalibus" of William Harvey (from Internet Archive)
As already reported for Falloppio, entire generations of European doctors were also formed on the works of Fabrizio, in particular the "Operationes chirurgicae", a summation of all surgical science of the time, published for the first time in Padova in 1617 and then in numerous editions during the 17th and 18th centuries in Italy and Europe, in Italian and French translations.
The anatomical theatre of Padova in a drawing of 1654 The anatomical theatre of Padova in a drawing of 1654 (from "Gymnasium Patavinum Iacobi Philippi Tomasini episcopi Æmoniensis libris 5...", Internet Archive)

In 1595, in confirmation of the primary importance of Human Anatomy, Fabrizio supervises the creation at the Bo, of the first stable Anatomical theatre in the world, following the constructive and organizational rules indicated a century before by Alessandro Benedetti; Fabrizio bequeaths to the Marciana Library his "Tavole di Anatomia" , drawn and coloured by hand, both as a sign of gratitude to the Republic of Venice for the policy of supporting science, and to ensure that they would be openly available to those who could access the public library.


Giulio Cesare Casseri
Giulio Cesare Casseri (from Wellcome Collection. CC BY)
• The Pentaestheseion in a digitization of the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze

Fabrizio is succeeded by Giulio Cesare Casseri (1552–1616), initially his "cliens et domesticus famulus" and his pupil, with whom he then had a confrontational relationship. Casseri’s studies on the 5 sense organs reported in the work "Pentaestheseion, hoc est de quinque sensibus liber, organorum fabricam, actionem et usum continens", printed in Venice in 1609 and 1627 and in Frankfurt in 1609, 1610, 1612, 1622, 1632, divided into five books, one for each of the senses and the "Tabulae anatomicae LXXVIII cum supplement XX tabularum D. Bucretii", printed in Venice in 1627, in Frankfurt in 1632, and in Amsterdam in 1645, of which one first print, almost a pre-print, is: "Iulii Casserii Tabulae Anatomicae quarum aliquot explicationes sua ipsa manu adscripsit necdum editas".

Thus, with legacies of medical art that will serve as a reference base for the next two centuries, the post-Vesalian protagonists, who studied ancient scientists, learned from the knowledge of their predecessors, practiced experimental science and described it in Latin, the written language of scholars, bring to life the golden age of the School of Anatomy.
And this School – an environment where an innovative background knowledge is conceived, consciously freed from doctrinal and religious impositions – is universally recognised as having given rise to a cultural revolution in the medical approach, a necessary step for the development of modern medicine.

This digital collection has been made possible by the collaboration of: the University of Padova (the University Library Centre, the Centre for University History and the 'V. Pinali' Ancient Medical Library), the Biblioteca Universitaria of Padova (MiBAC) and the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana of Venice (MiBAC).

The collection illustrating the cultural heritage of the Medical School of Padova will be be enriched with other texts. For this purpose the digitization of other relevant texts is planned.

Browse Collection »
All collections »