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Pathology in Renaissance Italy

Updated Thursday, 1st September 2005

Historians have argued that the Church saw dissection as a desecration of God's creation. But Katherine Park has found evidence of numerous dissections.

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Picture of Bienvieni

Model of a human head disected Recent discussions have argued that dissections for educational purposes (in lecture theatres before students) were heavily ritualised, which suggests that there was a religious taboo around cutting up dead bodies.

Katherine Park argues that the taboo came from relatives of the dead person, who didn't want their naked body shown to hundreds of strangers. She found an account of a woman being dissected in a church in front of hundreds of friars.

Saints were dissected in order to discover evidence of the touch of God; pregnant women had caesareans to try and baptise the baby before it died; there were autopsies on plague victims to try and understand the disease. As early as 1300, doctors were employed by the judiciary in Bologna to determine the cause of death in murder victims.

Benivieni's interest anticipates the transformation in anatomy in the 16th century. The Renaissance rediscovery of classical texts led both artists and physicians to look at bodies in a new way. Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo both did dissections in Santa Maria Nuova. But although huge strides were made in the understanding of anatomy, these had little effect on the practical art of healing.

Modern pathology room

The Statutes of the College of Physicians in Rome stated that donations to the poor should be made "for the souls of the dissected" implying that dissection was an act of desecration.

However Benivieni's detailed case histories list numerous dissections. 'De abditis nonnullis ac mirandis morborum et sanationum causis' ('Some Hidden and Marvellous Causes of Disease and Healing') was published in 1507 after his death. In a period when most medical books dealt in the general Benivieni's book stands out in its detail. He is credited with pioneering pathology.





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