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A Moment in History 

Title page of Anathomia Corporis Humanis by Mondino de Luzzi. Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine
Title page of "Anathomia Corporis Humanis" by Mondino de Luzzi

Alessandra Giliani

(1307 – 1326

Italian prosector and anatomist. Alessandra Giliani is the first woman to be on record as being an anatomist and prossector. She was born on 1307 in the town of Persiceto in northern Italy.

She was admitted to the University of Bologna circa 1323. Most probably she studied philosophy and the foundations of anatomy and medicine. She studied under Mondino de Luzzi (c.1270 – 1326), one of the most famous teachers at Bologna.

Giliani was the prosector for the dissections performed at the Bolognese “studium” in the Bologna School of Anatomy. She developed a technique (now lost to history) to highlight the vascular tree in a cadaver using fluid dyes which would harden without destroying them. Giliani would later paint these structures using a small brush. This technique allowed the students to see even small veins.

Giliani died at the age of 19 on March 26, 1326, the same year that her teacher Mondino de Luzzi died.  It is said that she was buried in front of the Madonna delle Lettere in the church of San Pietro e Marcellino at the Hospital of Santa Maria del Mareto in Florence by Otto Agenius Lustrulanus, another assistant to Modino de Luzzi.

Some ascribe to Agenius a love interest in Giliani because of the wording of the plaque that is translated as follows:

"In this urn enclosed are the ashes of the body of 
Alessandra Giliani, a maiden of Persiceto. 
Skillful with her brush in anatomical demonstrations 
And a disciple equaled by few, 
Of the most noted physician, Mondino de Luzzi, 
She awaits the resurrection. 
She lived 19 years: She died consumed by her labors 
March 26, in the year of grace 1326. 
Otto Agenius Lustrulanus, by her taking away 
Deprived of his better part, inconsolable for his companion, 
Choice and deservinging of the best from himself, 
Has erected this plaque"

Sir William Osler says of Alessandra Giliani “She died, consumed by her labors, at the early age of nineteen, and her monument is still to be seen”

The teaching of anatomy in the times of Mondino de Luzzi and Alessandra Giliani required the professor to be seated on a high chair or “cathedra” from whence he would read an anatomy book by Galen or another respected author while a prosector or “ostensor” would demonstrate the structures to the student. The professor would not consider coming down from the cathedra to discuss the anatomy shown. This was changed by Andreas Vesalius.

The image in this article is a close up of the title page of Mondino’s “Anothomia Corporis Humani” written in 1316, but published in 1478. Click on the image for a complete depiction of this title page. I would like to think that the individual doing the dissection looking up to the cathedra and Mondino de Luzzi is Alessandra Giliani… we will never know.

The life and death of Alessandra Giliani has been novelized in the fiction book “A Golden Web” by Barbara Quick.

1. “Books of the Body: Anatomical Ritual and Renaissance Learning” Carlino, A. U Chicago Press, 1999 
2. “Encyclopedia of World Scientists” Oakes, EH. Infobase Publishing, 2002 
3. “The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science”Harvey, J; Ogilvie, M. Vol1. Routledge 2000 
4. “The Evolution of Modern Medicine” Osler, W. Yale U Press 1921 
5. “The Mondino Myth” Pilcher, LS. 1906 
Original image courtesy of NLM

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Mondino de Luzzi

This article is part of the series "A Moment in History" where we honor those who have contributed to the growth of medical knowledge in the areas of anatomy, medicine, surgery, and medical research.To search all the articles in this series, click here.
Mondino de Luzzi (ca.1270 – 1326). Italian anatomist, born Raimondo de Luzzi in the city of Bologna circa 1270.  He was also known as Mondino, Remondino, or Mundinus de Leutiis, de Lentiis, de Lucci, and other variations of his name. His father Nerino Franzoli was an apothecary, and Mondino also started working as such.

In 1290 he enrolled in the Medical School at the University of Bologna obtaining his medical degree circa 1290. Mondino stayed at the university, where he continued to teach until his death in 1326.

His major publication is “Anothomia Corporis Humani”, written circa 1316 and found only in manuscript form. It was finally printed in movable type in 1478, making it easily available to the public. While some authors like Singer, 1925 contend that this is his only publication, others discuss the possibility that Mondino de’ Luzzi wrote other books that have been adjudicated to other authors as at the time the name “Mondino” was very common.

“Anothomia Corporis Humani” is the first anatomical book based on actual dissections, and the book was organized almost as a dissection manual, explaining dissection techniques to visualize specific structures. Initially this book had no illustrations, but some were added in later publications.

Title page of Anathomia Corporis Humanis by Mondino de Luzzi. Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine
Title page of Anathomia Corporis Humanis by Mondino de Luzzi
With over 40 editions, the last one in 1668, this book was used for almost 250 years. Mondino restarted human dissections in medical schools almost 1,500 years the medical school of Alexandria, leading many to call Mondino the “restorer of anatomy”.

It is said that Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) used one of Mondino’s books as a dissection manual to guide his own. Because Mondino followed Galen’s dictums and teachings, he was harshly criticized for his errors by Andreas Vesalius (1514 – 1564).

Although it is not clear if Mondino himself performed the actual dissections (he says he did), it is clear that he directed them. We know of two of his assistants:  Otto Agenio Lustrolanus and Alessandra Giliani, the first woman prosector and anatomist. When Mondino died the same year as Alessandra Giliani, the expectation was that his assistant would continue the work of the master. Sadly Otto Agenio Lustrolanus died before he was 30 years old.

In the introduction to “Anothomia” Mondino says: "A work upon any science or art-as saith Galen-is issued for three reasons: First, that one may satisfy his friends. Second, that he may exercise his best mental powers. Third, that he may be saved from the oblivion incident to old age. Therefore, moved by these three causes, I have proposed to my pupils to compose a certain work on Medicine.”

"And because a knowledge of the parts to be subjected to medicine (which is the human body, and the names of its various divisions) is a part of medical science, as saith Averrhoes in his first chapter, in the section on the definition of medicine, for this reason among others I have set out to lay before you the knowledge of the parts of the human body which is derived from anatomy, not attempting to use a lofty style, but the rather that which is suitable to a manual procedure."

1. “Mondino de' Luzzi's commentary on the Canones Generales of Mesue the Younger” Welborn, MC. Isis  , 22: 1 (1934) , 8-11
2. “Medieval neuroanatomy: the text of Mondino dei Luzzi and the plates of Guido da Vigevano” Orly R. J Hist Neurosci. 1997 6 (2):113-123
3. “Mondino de Luzzi (1270-1326) Restaurador de la Disecci?n Anat?mica” Rever?n, RR. Informe Medico 2007; 9 (12):589-592
4. “The history and illustration of anatomy in the Middle Ages” Gurunluoglu, R, et al. J Med Biogr 2013 21: 219 – 229
5. “The Mondino Myth” Pilcher, LS. 1906
Original image courtesy of NLM