Vesalius’s theatre

Andreas Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, Basel: ex. off. J. Oporini, 1543, frontispiece, woodcut, leaf height 43 cm N*.1.2(A).

Vesalius recommended the use of a theatre to stage public dissections. A temporary theatre modelled on a classical shape (e.g. the Arena in Verona or the Colosseum in Rome) as a place specifically for anatomizing was first suggested by Alessandro Benedetti (c.1450-1512) in his Anatomice (1502). Such a circular structure was indeed erected for Vesalius’s dissections at Padua and Bologna, half of which, Vesalius said, was shown in this frontispiece of the Fabrica.

These temporary theatres could be built outdoors or indoors, in churches and lecture halls. The theatre in the Fabrica is set in what looks like the interior of the Pantheon in Rome. The decorative elements, such as the Corinthian columns, rounded archways and metope with ancient motifs, are reminiscent of designs promoted by humanist architects like Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1533/35) who also designed (temporary) classical theatres for performances. It was later in the sixteenth century that permanent anatomical theatres were built (e.g. Leiden 1593, Padua 1594).