Exploring the History of Medicine, Part 13: Venice, Part 8

November 1, 2021


Academia Art Museum

The culmination of Venetian painting spanning approximately 500 years is the Academia Art Museum.

The city, surrounded by the sea and tidal flats (laguna), has little greenery.

Consequently, Venetians, instead, longed for the countryside and favored natural landscapes.

Therefore, Venetian paintings of the time placed humans in the midst of nature.

In the Middle Ages, there was a long-standing prohibition on dissection by the Catholic Church, and knowledge of anatomy from ancient Greek and Roman times had not seen much advancement.

However, during the Renaissance, a young anatomist named Andreas Vesalius appeared and overturned the prevailing wisdom.

While esteemed scholars of the time avoided performing dissections themselves, Vesalius personally wielded a scalpel and depicted details meticulously.

In 1543, he published an outstanding anatomical atlas titled "Fabrica" ("On the Fabric of the Human Body").

The painters who illustrated the anatomical drawings were from the Venetian school, including Titian.

They depicted human figures in various poses within landscapes that utilized perspective, employing the principles of depth perception.

They applied the technique of placing nude figures in natural landscapes to their anatomical illustrations.

There are even illustrations where a skeleton, named "Thinking Bones," assumes a pose resembling “The Thinker” of François-Auguste-René Rodin, displaying a humorous touch.

The year 1543 saw Copernicus proposing the heliocentric model, and Portuguese introducing firearms to Japan's Tanegashima Island.

Almost 500 years ago, such a magnificent anatomy atlas was created.

I was not aware of the existence of this textbook during my medical school days.

If I had known, the study of anatomy would have been more enjoyable.

What a pity!

This anatomical book became highly acclaimed, and Vesalius suddenly became the darling of the era.

However, his anatomical findings revealed in this book contradicted several traditional beliefs supported by the Catholic Church.

Consequently, Vesalius fell under suspicion of heresy.

In an attempt to clear his name, he embarked on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but tragically, he perished in a shipwreck on his return journey.


At the Academia Art Museum, Francesco Maffei's "Perseus and Medusa" (17th century) is also worth seeing.

As previously explained, Medusa is a monster from Greek mythology.

Each strand of her hair is a snake, and she possessed the power to turn onlookers into stone.

The appearance of the abdominal subcutaneous veins in patients with liver cirrhosis, radially distended, resembles snakes, hence the term "Medusa's head" is used to describe it.

(Reference: Exploring the History of Medicine, Part 5: Milan, Part 5).

The hero Perseus borrowed a shield from the goddess Athena and stealthily approached the sleeping Medusa.

Since direct eye contact would turn him to stone, he successfully managed to cut off her head by looking at the monster reflected in the shield.