Studying obstetrics blindfolded on anatomical wax models in the 18th century: the museum of Poggi Palace in Bologna

Sometimes it takes an external gaze of someone from far abroad to discover what you have in your back garden. This is what happened for me with the discovery of the “hidden treasures”, as put by Allison Abbott, of Bologna Poggi Palace and its museum. I lived in Bologna for five years when I was in college, but never visited this fantastic museum until I stumbled into this article published on Nature where Allison Abbott describes her ventures into “the museum that was once home to a revolutionary institute of sciences”, founded in 1711 by the army general and scholar Luigi Ferdinando Marsili, in order to compensate for “the failure of his university to engage in experimental research”. After reading her article I visited the place for the first time during my stay at home in Italy this summer (my hometown Forlì is only 60 km, about 40 miles, far from Bologna). Among the several collections that the museum hosts, I was particularly struck by the beautiful collection of Ercole Lelli’s and his students’ anatomical waxworks, in particular the obstetrics models. Who was Ercole Lelli? Lelli (1702-1766), “figure director” of the Accademia Clementina delle Belle Arti housed in Palazzo Poggi, was responsible for the first systematic planning involving anatomical waxworks. In October 1742, upon Pope Benedict XIV’s request, he presented his programme for the institute’s anatomical room detailing the wax model tablets he was to create. These included: wax tablets illustrating “separate bones”, eight life-size statues including a male and a female nude and six flayed men showing different muscle layers down to the bone.
As explained by Abbott in her Nature article, until the eighteenth century, obstetrics was almost exclusively the domain of midwives. Then, new instrumentation brought childbirth into the domain of men, which prompted the obstetrician Giovanni Antonio Galli to build up a private teaching collection of models, with the help of Lelli’s students. The collection had a purely didactic aim, as medical students and midwives were supposed to recognize, when blindfolded, the different phases of pregnancy through to delivery, including difficult and potentially deadly fetal positions.
Among the other collections in the museum, there is the laboratory where Luigi Galvani did his famous electricity experiments on frogs, and Ulisse Aldrovandi’s sixteenth-century natural history collection. I was surprised by how cheap the entrance to such a museum full of “hidden treasures” is: only 1 € if you are a student or senior person, and 3 € if you’re not! But note that the opening hours are kind of limited: the museum is open only Tuesday to Sunday 10.00 – 1.00 PM. The entrance is in via Zamboni, 33, which is the narrow street with archway covered sidewalks where most of the classical faculties of the university of Bologna are still located. Thank you, Allison, for this discovery!

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