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ARCHIGINNASIO, DYNAMIC CENTER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF BOLOGNA
University Of Bologna
The Archiginnasio (Greek for “first school”), the ancient seat of the University of Bologna, is quite extraordinary. I often catch a glimpse of people hesitating in front of the entrance before they venture in. Watching them during their visit, I notice their expressions of astonishment and wonder, regardless of their level of culture and knowledge. There is no doubt that the Archiginnasio is a place that enchants everyone, even those who are oblivious to the story behind its magnificent architecture, dedicated to medicine and law, and unable to recognise the fascinating symbolism it represents.
The Archiginnasio is a building that belongs to my life; perhaps I would not have graduated in medicine if I had not got to know it. During my days as a student there in the late 1970’s, I read the distinguished names of the professors and lecturers I found in my textbooks under portraits on the hallway walls. It seemed to me as though I had almost learned from them by osmosis: as if by studying there was paying homage to all the knowledge they had passed on to their students.
I feel that the Archiginnasio is a place of primary importance, due to the anatomical theatre located right at its very heart. The room itself is beautiful, lined with the statues of the 12 great masters of medicine that hark back to the entire body of knowledge of the art of medicine. It was in this room that corpses were dissected, indispensable to the teaching of anatomy and disease. This practice had long been prohibited and hindered (in the beginning animals were used) and then finally permitted in the 15th century, thanks to the university’s increasing open-mindedness and–why deny it?–the advantages it offered. Indeed, Bologna had been suffering from a “brain drain” of teachers leaving to fill posts in other institutions where the dissection of corpses was already allowed. Bolognese professors were thus able to teach using the human body without having to fall into the same inevitable–and often significant–misapprehensions related to animal anatomy.
Still today, the Faculty of Medicine is associated with the Archiginnasio, as is plastic surgery, the specialisation I teach. The building also houses the headquarters of the Medical and Surgical Association, the oldest of its kind in Italy, established in 1802, and active in addressing up-to-the-minute medical issues.
One of the Archiginnasio’s greatest teachers was Gaspare Tagliacozzi (1545–1599), a professor of plastic surgery who became an anatomy lecturer in 1590. His image is among the 12 illustrious physicians that surround the dissection table in the anatomical theatre. Tagliacozzi died at the age of only 53 after having achieved fame and honour that also took him abroad to teach. He earned recognition by conceiving a method of surgical nose reconstruction. Known as “the Italian method”, it involves removing a skin flap from the arm to repair the nose.
In his book De curtorum chirurgia per Insitionem, published in Venice by Bindoni (1597) Tagliacozzi accurately describes his surgical techniques, pointing out the most suitable instruments for nose reconstruction and methods for keeping patients in position and immobilised in order to make it possible to transfer the tissue from the arm to the face. Anyone reading it today will find that it is incredibly current, not just with regard to the surgical techniques, but also his philosophy of having a meticulous approach to treating the wounds.
The Archiginnasio is where I always end my course with the students of the University of Bologna’s Faculty of Medicine, explaining what this distinguished professor did for plastic surgery and medicine in general. It is wonderful to watch them reliving his life as a medical student back then, his participation as an artist and a philosopher, in “sporting opposition” to those studying the law. This is when I remind them of the history of the oldest university in the Western world, founded in 1088, so that they can go back to the beginning when the studious went to class directly with the professor–often at his own home–paying him on the spot. In those days, if the students were not satisfied with a professor’s work, they stopped paying and he ceased to be a teacher.
The free spirit and open-mindedness that characterised the University of Bologna in that period attracted university professors of great renown from all over Europe. In 1268 the artists’ school began, which included doctors, but it was only 20 years later, 200 years after the founding of the university, that Mastership Teodorus Condam Andreotti de Florentia granted the professors of medicine the same privileges as those of law. From then on, distinguished professors, such as Mondino Degli Uzi, flocked to Bologna. Uzi was a lecturer in practical medicine and introduced anatomy lessons as a basic requisite to the course of studies in medicine.
In the 17th century, the University of Bologna experienced a period of decline that was linked to the city’s political and economic degeneration, the lack of a proper body of professors, the suppression of aid to students coming from other European nations, as well as to the major reform Europe was undergoing at that time. Meanwhile, the Faculty of Medicine in Bologna remained anchored to the knowledge of the ancient masters, but it was not enough. In other parts of Italy, universities were springing up and quickly gaining in stature. Elsewhere a movement for reform–an anti-conformist current of thought–was taking hold; people were hungry for modernisation. And as an antithesis to the conservatism of the universities, the academies were born.
Despite Bologna University’s critical situation during this period, it was still graced by the presence of masters of incredible calibre such as Marcello Malpighi (1628–1694), who studied the structure of the human body through microscopes and uncovered new structures that opened up new horizons. He also taught pathology and, through research in autopsies, he found a link between clinical manifestation and anatomical framework. As a result, he was able to classify respiratory disorders in a rational way for the first time, also connecting them to anatomopathological lesions of the heart and major blood vessels.
The 18th century was full of luminaries, too. One example is Pierpaolo Molinelli (1702–1764), who underlined the importance of obtaining a professional qualification and of working with corpses so as to acquire confidence and speed in curing diseases; he also established the first course in “surgical operations on corpses”. The surgeon Giovan Antonio Galli (1708–1782) researched genital anatomy and physiology, and by using wax and clay models he developed a new technique that helped reduce the risks of childbirth. A new vein of analysis was sparked by Luigi Galvani (1737–1789) in the form of human and comparative anatomy research.
By the time the Napoleonic campaigns (1796–1797) reached northern Italy, major structural and ideological modifications were under way at the University of Bologna. In 1803, the medicine and surgery class was split and structured into five-year courses. In that period, the School of Surgery was brilliantly represented by Giuseppe Atti (1753–1826), well-known for skull drilling. Many doctors and surgeons then followed, including Augusto Murri (1841–1932), who brought with him new clinical methods of diagnosis by establishing radiology and endoscopy laboratories, as well as a chemical physics laboratory for bacteriological and haematological analyses.
But there was also Francesco Rizzoli (1840–1880), who had the great merit of having introduced anaesthesia using chloroform in November 1897. A surgeon of extraordinary skill and speed, his knowledge spanned all surgical branches, including obstetrics. He also invented new techniques and created the instruments necessary for them.
The surgeon Pietro Loreta is known for trying out surgical operations never attempted before, and Giuseppe Ruggi came up with the idea of protecting both the doctor and patient against infection with the introduction of uniforms and cotton and rubber gloves. In 1890, he started sterilising through heat and, in 1908, was disinfecting the skin with iodine tincture.
Cesare Cavina (1888–1935) was a great surgeon who, during World War I, acquired remarkable experience in the healing of wounds, and introduced plastic surgery for the treatment of facial injuries. He was convinced that the best results could be achieved by intervening rapidly and correctly. For this reason, he asked to be sent to the front line, and in 1916 he began his work with the health service in the Karst and then in the V Army Surgical Hospital. The number of delicate plastic surgery operations he executed to restore damaged faces was extremely great. Not only did he treat horrific war injuries, but he also contrived a therapy for the accompanying pain. Once the war came to an end, he began work at the Beretta Institute in Bologna. Cavina covered reconstructive surgery of the face in each and every of its aspects. With his perfect, original and unusual techniques, he could reconstruct both the facial skeleton and the soft tissues. He also made an important contribution to the resolution of hypophyseal tumors by inventing a surgical technique that utilises the transnasal airway. He died prematurely on September 21, 1935.
In short, this is the story of the University of Bologna’s Faculty of Medicine that can be drawn from a visit to the Archiginnasio: an ensemble of tradition and culture that creates a rare environment, fundamental for instilling creative enthusiasm and reflection in the students… our future doctors. And it is for this reason that the Archiginnasio may be considered the dynamic centre of the University of Bologna.
Article by Paolo G. Morselli Photos by Carlo Orsi
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