Bodies, Babies, Nuns and Relics – Using Atlas Obscura in Bologna

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Right before my trip to Bologna last week I discovered Atlas Obscura – an online compendium of “wondrous and curious” travel destinations. With a billing like that I couldn’t resist typing my destination into the search bar and seeing if there was anything I'd not yet stumbled across in my planning.

Immediately, there were two suggestions that captured my imagination - the mummified relic Saint Catherine of Bologna, and the Anatomical and Obstetrics Collection at the Museo di Palazzo Poggi. A morbid pairing perhaps, but these visits turned out to be some of the most memorable of my trip.

(N.B - the rest of this post contain anatomical images which, although not of real bodies, might be best skipped if you're particularly averse to that kind of thing...)

Bologna's Anatomical History

I knew Bologna was a leading centre for anatomical research in early modern times, and had planned a trip to see the Anatomical Theatre of the Archiginnasio already. Atlas Obscura threw up a suggestion that helped me delve into Bologna's medical history even further; a collection of anatomical waxworks and obstetrics models in the Museo di Palazzo Poggi.

The collection was completely fascinating, if not for the squeamish. Real skeletons were covered in glistening wax muscles, arteries and organs - realistic depictions of the human body used in early medical teaching. The highlight of the collection is Clemente Susini’s 'Venerina' - a young, pregnant female captured in the final throes of death. Her wax torso opens to reveal her organs, each one removable for use in education.

Possibly even more arresting was the obstetrics collection; including tens of life-size womb models depicting stages of pregnancy and childbirth - in particular, when things go wrong. Fascinating and horrifying in equal measure, I walked the displays awed by history's painstaking research and efforts that have made such scenarios survivable today. Nonetheless, the graphic nature of some of the models make this exhibit perhaps not one for expectant parents...

The Mummified Remains of Saint Catherine of Bologna

If not for the promise of a mummified nun I probably wouldn’t have visited Chiesa della Santa, if known of its existence at all. Atlas Obscura promised hidden doors, secretive nuns and - of course - the miraculously preserved body of a 15th Century Saint. I just had to see for myself.

Walking to the church on a Saturday morning, we saw a crowd of nuns hurrying into the church ahead of us. We arrived in time to see them disappearing into the chapel containing Saint Catherine. Unwilling to disturb their presumed worship, we explored the main church until overtaken by curiosity. Inside the chapel the nuns knelt in front of her blackened body, in a gilt-covered room filled with the artefacts of her life.

Tiptoeing on the marble floor, I resigned my camera to my bag so as not to disturb the prayer with my shutter. Until, that is, a pair of nuns can bounding out of the chapel, DSLRs in hand, asking me if they were allowed to take pictures. They were two of a group of young international nuns, touring Italy to visit the sites associated with various saints. Suddenly, I realised I'd got the mood all wrong. Like us, they were excited tourists - many had cameras slung over their robes, and moved in and out of the chapel between worship, photograph-taking and whispering in pairs.

As we left the chapel a swelling of voices began, as the young nuns sang in chorus a prayer to the mummified saint. I'd expected my visit to Saint Catherine to be not much more than a curiosity - a photographic visit to a quirky religious relic of the long-dead past. But it turned out to me so much more than that - a glimpse into real, living religion and an uplifting reminder than even those travellers whose lives seem so removed from my own are in so many ways really just the same.

Follow this sign - ring the bell to the right of the door if it is not already open

The Anatomical and Obstetrics Collection is one of a number of interesting exhibits found in the Museo Palazzo Poggi housed in the University building at via Zamboni 33. Entry to the whole museum is 5 Euro.

Corpus Domini (or Chiesa della Santa) is at via Tagliapietre 19. Entry is free, although watch the opening hours as, like most places, they close for most of the mid afternoon.

Atlas Obscura can be found here - I wholeheartedly recommend adding it to any travelling-planning tool arsenal!

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