Collections complete: experiential centres of learning

Lynsey Grosfield
Rude, Denmark (Winter 2018)


The period between roughly 1520 and 1590 was a time of growing efforts to understand the world of science through hands-on exercises in collecting and cataloguing natural objects, observation, dissection, and experimentation in the fields of anatomy, botany, and museum science. This was also the time of the High Renaissance in the arts and literature; manifested by a broad institutional shift towards universities, leading to private and public institutions emphasizing the acquisition of knowledge by means of experimentation, a period called by some the “Scientific Revolution.”

Engraving of a dissection, taking place at the Leiden Anatomy Theatre
(1609) after a drawing by J. C. 
vant Woudt (Woudanus).9

One characteristic of this culture was the trend to collect natural objects – preserved human remains, gems and minerals, fantastic animal specimens, and practical inventions. This was not part of the routine studies of natural philosophy before 1500. In the late Middle Ages public dissections, courtly (or papal) physic gardens, and collections of exotica were documented, with universities prioritizing these kinds of installations during the sixteenth century rise of Renaissance humanism. The expansion of these physical structures for experiential learning across Europe can be seen most clearly in the period between the 1530s and 1590s, when “anatomy theatres, botanical gardens, and cabinets of curiosities became regular features in the pursuit of scientific knowledge.”i By the 1590s, all of the top sites for training physicians had a purpose-built amphitheatre for public dissections and an accompanying physic garden.ii

These sites of inquiry—anatomical, botanical, and museological—are inextricably linked: for example, the Swiss anatomist, physician and botanist Caspar Bauhin (1560-1624) was appointed Chair of Anatomy and Botany around 1589 in Basel, but also worked as a professor of Greek.ii Indeed, the classical liberal arts education trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric, along with the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy was meant to prepare natural philosophers for an integrated study of fields such as anatomy, medicine, botany, and history. This kind of multi-subject specialization:

[…] flourished in the context of a world of learning in which the boundaries between humanistic disciplines were relatively open and indeterminate; polymathic erudition and schemes of universal history embracing all forms of human knowledge were greatly prized, especially as the sixteenth century wore on; and later notions of specialization and of clear separation between scientific and humanistic fields were largely absent.iii

To the modern reader such a spectacular array of expertise would seem to make a man a practitioner of everything but a master of nothing. But at the time professors such as Bauhin made significant contributions to both botanical and medical nomenclature.iv

Physic gardens, intended for the summer study of plants with pharmacological or useful properties, were the precursor of the botanical garden where plants were studied as natural specimens. The Universities of Pisa and Padua established theirs in 1545, followed by Bologna in 1568, Leiden in 1577, Basel in 1589, and Montpellier in 1593.v Containing plants from the Old World and the New World, these gardens were meant to be repositories of learning, but also places where botany professors (usually also physicians, like Bauhin), taught students about the manners in which the plants, or “medicinal simples,” could be According to historian Paula Findlen, it was a way of “creating an artificial world of knowledge in which scholars prodded, dissected, and experimented with nature in order to know it better.”vii It was a new way of learning about botanical life, one grounded in the pragmatic expertise of the gardener, the trade knowledge of the apothecary, and the broad classical liberal arts knowledge of the philosopher.

In the study of anatomy, this shift towards experiential learning 13 constituted an attempted revival of the methodologies of the classical greats like Galen, Dioscorides, and Hippocrates. Works of Galen and Hippocrates in their original Greek or Latin were published in 1525,viii and a resurgent interest in dissection—something Galen himself had only done on apes—was part of the humanist project, albeit with the added scholarly benefit of using human cadavers.ix

Cities with a strong medical tradition, and whose universities had surgery as a part of the medical curriculum (such as Padua, Bologna, and Montpellier), were the first to use temporary wooden anatomy theaters for research and education.x The renowned physician Vesalius – performing dissections at Padua – spoke about how the visual experience of post-mortem anatomy was integral to learning, also stressing the importance of the experience of handling organs, body parts, and viscera.xi For physicians like Vesalius, it was not the works of Galen but rather the methodologies that were exemplary.xii

Vesalius hailed from the Habsburg Netherlands, where the institutional culture of anatomy theatres and specimen collections was markedly different from that in Padua where he worked. Dutch theatres, such as that at Leiden University (est. 1575), were replete with assembled human remains bearing Latin inscriptions on the nature of life and morality.xiii They were eventually transformed into a veritable cabinet of curiosities, containing “Chinese scrolls, porcelain teapots, Egyptian idols, and exotic plants,” in part as a result of transatlantic contact, conquest, and trade informing the culture of collection.xiv

The dynamic expansion of natural history, for example, owed far less to natural philosophy, mixed mathematics, or even medicine than to booming trade with the Far East and Far West that flooded European markets with new commodities and naturalia, many of them previously unknown to learned Europeans.xv

For economically motivated explorers – like Christopher Columbus – natural objects were collected according to perceived value, so the catalog of the natural world derived from his and other voyages outward from the “centre” (Europe) was decidedly not complete. Writing about the various arborous life in New Spain, Columbus recorded: “it grieves me extremely that I cannot identify [the trees], for I am quite certain they are all valuable and I am bringing samples of them and of the plants also.”xvi This culture of commerce-driven sample taking, cultivated in particular in the Spanish Atlantic world, necessitated the creation of standardized, empirical systems to cope with the overwhelming influx of new objects and information.xvii


Colonial Encounters and Cabinets of Curiosity

For European travelers to new lands, there were constant encounters with natural specimens not described in the works of classical natural history authorities like Pliny, and this wealth of new information did much to chip away at the perceived infallibility of ancient sources. Bringing these natural specimens back to Europe and housing them in demarcated spaces for study and inquiry spurred a culture of active research, cataloging, and documentation, which dared to contradict established wisdom about nature.


The Reform of Learning

The sixteenth century emergence of permanent anatomy theatres, physic gardens, and cabinets of curiosity in houses of knowledge changed the culture of learning in what would become “the sciences.” This shift is perhaps most evident in the work of statesman, author, and educational reformer Francis Bacon. His Gesta Grayorum (1594) – a fantastical proposed research facility containing libraries, gardens, lakes of salt – and freshwater, museums, menageries, and a “goodly huge cabinet” containing feats of engineering, natural wonders, and geological fare – is perhaps a culmination of the growing understanding of the educational and scientific utility of spaces where nature could be observed, but also “harassed.”xviii It was this interaction with the stuff of the natural world that Bacon supposed revealed its secrets. The Gesta Grayorum was the thematic blueprint for the fictive Salomon’s house in his unfinished speculative fiction, The New Atlantis.xix These spaces, although fictional, were idealized versions of existing institutions in Europe; they illustrated Bacon’s methodological preference for experiential learning through dissection, collection, observation, and experimentation, a mode of approaching scholarship that was gaining traction throughout Europe.


End Notes

  1. Paula Findlen, “Anatomy Theaters, Botanical Gardens, and Natural History Collections,” 273.
  2. Ibid., 277.
  3. Nancy G. Siraisi, Cultures Of Knowledge In The Early Modern World, 262.
  4. M. Bergmann, D. Wendler “Caspar Bauhin (1560-1624).” Gegenbaurs Morphol. Jahrbuch 132: 173-181.
  5. Paula Findlen, “Anatomy Theaters, Botanical Gardens, and Natural History Collections,” 282.
  6. Ibid., 281-2.
  7. Ibid., 272
  8. Ibid.
  9. Peter Dear, Revolutionizing the sciences: European knowledge and its ambitions, 1500-1700, 37.
  10. Paula Findlen, “Anatomy Theaters, Botanical Gardens, and Natural History Collections,” 275.
  11. Ibid., 276
  12. Peter Dear, Revolutionizing the sciences: European knowledge and its ambitions, 1500-1700, 37
  13. Paula Findlen, “Anatomy Theaters, Botanical Gardens, and Natural History Collections,” 278-9.
  14. Ibid., 278
  15. Katharine Park and Lorraine Daston, “Introduction: The Age of the New,” 14.
  16. Christopher Columbus quoted in Paula Findlen. “Natural History,” in The Cambridge History of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 448.
  17. Antonio Barrera-Osorio, “Empiricism in the Spanish Atlantic World,” in Science and Empire in the Atlantic World (New York: Routledge, 2008).
  18. Francis Bacon, quoted in Paula Findlen, “Anatomy Theaters, Botanical Gardens, and Natural History Collections,” 272.
  19. Ibid., 273



  1. Barrera-Osorio, Antonio. “Empiricism in the Spanish Atlantic World.” In Delbourgo, James and Dew, Nicholas. Eds. Science and Empire in the Atlantic World. 177-202. New York: Routledge, 2008.
  2. Bergmann M., Wendler D. Caspar Bauhin (1560-1624). Gegenbaurs Morphol. Jahrb. 132: 173-181. 1986.
    Billing, Christian. “Modelling the anatomy theatre and the indoor hall theatre: Dissection on the stages of early modern London.” In Early Modern Literary Studies. Special Issue 13 (April, 2004): 3.1-17.>.
    Dear, Peter. Revolutionizing the sciences: European knowledge and its ambitions, 1500-1700. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.
  3. Findlen, Paula. “Natural History.” In The Cambridge History of Science. Katharine Park and Lorraine Daston, Eds. 435–68. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  4. Findlen, Paula. “Anatomy Theaters, Botanical Gardens, and Natural History Collections.” In The Cambridge History of Science. Eds. Katharine Park and Lorraine Daston, 272–89. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  5. Nutton, Vivian. “The Rise of Medical Humanism: Ferrara, 1464–1555.” Renaissance Studies 11, no. 1 (1997): 2-19.
  6. Park, Katharine and Lorraine Daston. “Introduction: The Age of the New.” In The Cambridge History of Science. Eds. Katharine Park and Lorraine Daston, 1–18. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  7. Park, Katharine and Lorraine Daston. Wonders and the order of nature, 1150-1750. New York: Zone Books, 2001.
  8. Siraisi, Nancy G. Cultures Of Knowledge In The Early Modern World: History, Medicine, and the Traditions of Renaissance Learning. Ann Arbor, US: University of Michigan Press, 2010.
  9. Source: Christian Billing, “Modelling the anatomy theatre and the indoor hall theatre: Dissection on the stages of early modern London,” in Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 13 (April, 2004): 3.1-17.



LYNSEY GROSFIELD,  is a Canadian science journalist and writer living in Denmark. She has a degree in anthropology and social studies of medicine from McGill and is an MSc candidate in science communication and public engagement at the University of Edinburgh.


Hektorama  |  History Essays