A complex of museum exhibitions in the old university of Bologna
The part of most interest to the dark tourist is without doubt the venerable medical exhibition, including a substantial obstetrics section as well as whole-body wax models, dissections, skeletons and other icky medical
More background info: The Museo di Palazzo Poggi's motto “scienza e arte” sums it up pretty well: this is indeed at the crossroads of science and art.
The wax models made in Italy at the time (18th century mainly) set a new standard, one that subsequently also gave rise to similar museums elsewhere, such as the Josephinum
Not only did they serve genuine scientific purposes, mainly in teaching medical students their profession, but they were also prized works of art.
Perhaps the most celebrated Italian sculptor of such wax models was Clemente Susini (1754-1814). The bulk of his work is in Florence, but the Bologna museum has one of his most famous works: the “Venerina” model of a dissected woman (see below
Of course, the need for such models resulted from the fact that methods of adequate preservation of real bodies or body parts were not yet available, so to provide graphic impressions of what the medical students were taught, models had to stand in. Compared to later real-life training with real dead bodies/parts, these models at least had the advantage of being olfactorily neutral …
But remember, these are works by artists, not medical professionals – and for these artists to be able to produce such finely crafted pieces they had to work with medical colleagues, i.e. attend genuine dissections and be shown all the details on real dead bodies they were then to reproduce as life-(or rather death-)like as possible. So they at least must have had good stomachs. You have to admire that.
The Palazzo Poggi building as such dates back to the 16th century and takes its name from a family who commissioned the palace. Not much later it became the home of the Bologna Science Institute in the early 1700s. Over the next few decades followed a library, an observatory and the scientific collections that later were to form the nucleus of today's museums.
This seat of learning in Bologna
was one of the nerve centres of the Enlightenment – and its collections became one of the first public science museums in the world. So this is not just any old museum (though it IS old) but a shrine to what the human intellect strives for if you let it. Thus it is also a pilgrimage site of sorts.
The original collections had, however, been dispersed around the university over the years. Only in the year 2000 were the original rooms reopened in the form they now have (again) at the original location of the Palazzo Poggi.
What there is to see: After purchasing your ticket and making it up the stairs to the first floor, turn left and you come to the wing with the medical parts.
Turning left again once inside you come to the famous obstetrics section. Here you can see wax models of dozens of wombs with babies inside – mostly the wrong way … so it's a study of what can go wrong in pregnancy and childbirth, really. (Though there are a couple of dozen models, they can't quite compete with the much wider range and more realistically horrid depictions in the obstetrics section of the Josephinum
This obstetrics part is further augmented with scale models of a birth-giving scene as well as with a couple of examples of birth defects, including a cyclops and an anencephalic. (Their wax model depiction, however, is somewhat crude and, again, not as realistic as the specimens you can see e.g. at the pathological collection at the Narrenturm
Next come some of the star pieces of the collection, which are also amongst the oldest. Especially noteworthy are the eight full-body-size models dating back to the mid-18th century (made by Ercole Lelli). There are two full human models, one man and one woman (in the nude), as well as six more in varying “layers” of the body. One that is only a skeleton holds a scythe – like a proper Mr Death!
Compared to these large exhibits, the smaller ones may seem less awesome but they too deserve attention. There are countless models of individual body parts, from intricate hand models to somewhat cruder ones of internal organs and other body parts, such as a larynx.
A particularly stunning wax installation shows an elegantly dressed woman hovering over an open skull revealing the brain. It reminded me of that especially horrible scene in the movie “Hannibal” when the lead character (played by Anthony Hopkins) is feeding his victim his own brain piece by piece. This allusion is certainly not intended by this exhibit but it still looks pretty gruesome …
Right at the back of this wing is another star exhibit: the “Venerina” by Clemente Susini. This is the model of a beautiful young, naked woman, still wearing a necklace round her neck. But below the neck she is open.
This is a virtual dissection type of model, i.e. her model body can physically be opened layer by layer, organ by organ. These removable parts are arranged around her by her legs in this display. What is also revealed in this model is that the woman was pregnant, though not yet showing any outwards signs of it.
The clash between the artful depiction of the woman's beauty in posture and facial expression with the gruesomeness of the opened body is clearly intentional and quite mesmerizing.
Retracing your steps back to the beginning of the medical sections you can then carry on to the adjacent natural history part, where, for examples, specimens of turtles, sharks, pufferfish, chameleons, as well as two stuffed alligators and other animals can be seen.
The rest of the museum includes sections on physics, chemistry, ship models, cannons, models and drawings of fortifications (clearly considered an art form here too) and, last but not least, the magnificent old library. Especially noteworthy here are the large old globes showing the world as it was believed to be in the early-to-mid 18th century … already quite close to what we know now.
Apart from the exhibitions and its displays, the rooms of the museum as such are also remarkable, especially the many intricate ceiling paintings. If you look closely you can spot the odd gruesome or weirdly bizarre detail here too ...
in the headquarters of the old University of Bologna
, Palazzo Poggi, on Via Zamboni 33, in the heart of the Old Town.
Co-ordinates and Google maps locator:
- 44°29'48.8"N 11°21'08.6"E
Access and costs: fairly easy to find, not expensive.
From within Bologna's compact city centre it is easily walkable, but bus line C can help cut the walking distance from the central station – get out at Teatro Comunale a bit further down Via Zamboni. At the other, lower end of Via Zamboni, the famous Due Torri (see under Bologna
) make for a useful landmark in finding this street. The entrance to the museum is towards the upper, north-eastern end of the street, on the right-hand side (viewed from the city centre) under some of Bologna's many colonnaded arcades. The main museum parts are upstairs.
Admission: 5 EUR (concession: 3 EUR)
Opening times: weekdays except Mondays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at weekends; in summer from only 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays.
Time required: between ca. 30 and 45 minutes for just the medical sections and an hour and a half or so if you also want to explore the other parts of the museum in depth.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
see under Bologna
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Parts of the Palazzo Poggi museum exhibitions themselves are more mainstreamy or at least not as dark as the medical section. Furthermore, the location of the museum makes it easy to walk to virtually all the other prime tourist attractions of the compact city centre.
- Poggi museum 01 - entrance
- Poggi museum 02 - life and death in wax models
- Poggi museum 03 - obstetrics - everything that can go wrong
- Poggi museum 04 - models of birth defects
- Poggi museum 05 - including anencephaly
- Poggi museum 06 - a cyclops
- Poggi museum 07 - Mr Death skeleton complete with scythe
- Poggi museum 08 - brain surgery Hannibal-Lecter-style
- Poggi museum 09 - sleeping beauty
- Poggi museum 10 - dissected
- Poggi museum 11 - but still wearing a necklace
- Poggi museum 12 - eye on a plinth
- Poggi museum 13 - larynx
- Poggi museum 14 - human medicine
- Poggi museum 15 - animals too
- Poggi museum 16 - more display cabinets
- Poggi museum 17 - library
- Poggi museum 18 - locked-up books
- Poggi museum 19 - science history
- Poggi museum 20 - more rooms and ship models
- Poggi museum 21 - globe and cannons
- Poggi museum 22 - the study of defensive fortifications
- Poggi museum 23 - modern university
- Poggi museum 24 - painted ceiling