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Bologna: University challenge

My lecture theatres were never this cool. The entire room is panelled in wood, including a throne-like main seat that has its own little roof held aloft by lifesize models of flayed men. In the middle stands a relatively small marble table. And that’s where people would be cut up.

Bologna: University challenge
Courtyard of Archiginnasio/iStockphoto

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The Anatomical Theatre inside Bologna’s Archiginnasio Palace was pretty groundbreaking in its day, hence the size. Cutting up a body for the empirical study of how it works was hardly a common-or-garden occurrence back in 1637, when the theatre was built. Such pioneering ideas would draw in the crowds.

This has long been the case in Bologna, home to Europe’s oldest university, which is widely agreed to have been founded in 1088.

The Archiginnasio Palace was the first attempt to unify the various wings of the university under one roof, although it’s now home to the city’s public library. The uni got moved north west during the Napoleonic era.

It doesn’t require detective skills to realise when you’re strolling through the district where it’s now located. The city’s usually pristine porticos take a grungier turn, adorned with spray paint sloganeering and political fly posters. The usual trattorias and pizzerias give way to English, Irish and US theme pubs, perhaps a reflection of an internationalist rather than parochial mindset. And in the Piazza Giuseppe Verdi, young ’uns with a splendid array of ridiculous haircuts sprawl half-sitting, half-lying on the concrete with cans of beer in hand. It’s a picture of pseudo-academic loucheness replicated all over the world.

What makes the University of Bologna a bit special, however, is not just its venerability but the sheer amount of stuff it’s collected in its 926 years. Most is stored inside the Palazzo Poggi, originally a powerful cleric’s home and now the university’s main building.

It can be safely said that the Palazzo Poggi is one of the most brilliantly weird places in the world. One room has dinosaur jaws, stuffed puffer fish and ostrich eggs; another is full of globes; another is dark aside from a classical statue and a beam of light refracting off a mirror. Apparently, this was where Francesco Maria Zanotti first tried to prove Newton’s theories on refraction.

The jumble of scientific oddities at eye level is offset by the beauty above. There are showily bevelled wooden ceilings and lovingly detailed frescos going largely ignored.

But the Palazzo Poggi gets properly freaky when it gets down to biology. One room is full of anatomical models stripped to muscles and tendons. Another has a lifesize model of a voluptuous, almost sexually-presented woman. She has been dissected, with her internal organs placed neatly by her side and a baby in her womb.

The proper spurrer of all future nightmares, however, is the Sala di Camilla. Above are beautiful paintings of scenes from Virgil’s Aeneid. Below are hundreds and hundreds of wax and clay uteruses, all lined up in glass cases, with babies sized according to various stages of the gestation period. It’s part art history, part fascinating insight into how obstetrics was taught centuries ago, and many, many parts horror film setting.

No wonder the students in the square outside need a beer.