Intended for healthcare professionals

Cultural Studies

From a 16th century monastery to a 21st century orthopaedic hospital

BMJ 2006; 333 doi: (Published 21 December 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;333:1328
  1. P Tomba, librarian1,
  2. A Viganò, librarian1,
  3. C Menarini, secretary to scientific director2,
  4. P Picci, scientific director2
  1. 1Library, Institute Orthopedic Rizzoli, Bologna, Italy
  2. 2Scientific Direction, Institute Orthopedic Rizzoli, Bologna, Italy
  1. Correspondence to: P Tomba patrizia.tomba{at}

    Taddeo Pepoli,1 abbot of the Olivetan (a suborder of Benedictine monks), wearing his white habit, walks quickly up the hill to the monastery of San Michele in Bosco, in Bologna. He has been yearning to revisit the place where he was the prior at the end of the 17th century, and now he has decided to make his wish come true.

    Inside the building, he goes straight upstairs to where he and his brother monks used to study. He opens the heavy door confidently, looking forward to admiring the library that he had rebuilt and frescoed. But, crossing the threshold, the monk is bewildered; the room looks strange; it is no longer the place he had remembered all these years. He looks up and sees the brightly coloured frescoes by Domenico Maria Canuti, a pupil of Guido Reni, and the Swiss painter Enrico Haffner, that he had commissioned2; looking down, he sees the fine, shiny floor—but everything else is different.

    The monk walks timidly on and catches sight of a magnificent globe that was not there before: it is the work of Padre Rosini da Lendinara,3 who finished making it, in that room, in 1762. (Australia is but an outline on the globe.)

    Looking around, he notices that the solid walnut bookshelves, made for him by Martorelli, have gone, replaced by stark shelving. Filled with curiosity, the abbot takes down a few books; they look so different from the hymn books he was used to. He is puzzled by the pictures in the books. His fingers feel the shiny paper of the photographs of people in strange poses. “Where are those fine, hand painted pictures that decorate the precious books I remember on the shelves of my library?” he asks himself. What he sees printed on the pages of the books he is holding are people who look almost as though they are alive. He is taken aback; he does not know of the discovery by Daguerre in 1839 that has modified radically the pictures that illustrate the text. Turning the pages, he sees strange and completely incomprehensible images: he is unaware of the discovery of x rays by Roentgen, which in 1895 revolutionised the diagnostic power of doctors.

    Unfamiliar objects

    Nor is the next room unchanged: instead of the mathematical instruments, telescopes, magnets, and other precious objects that he had kept there, the monk finds display cases with unfamiliar objects. In the left one he finds documents, personal effects, and surgical instruments (such as forceps, osteoclasts, saws, retractors, scalpels, and pliers) that, as he reads on the cards placed next to each instrument, belonged to a certain Professor Francesco Rizzoli (see box).4 In the centre, instead of the bronze statue of St Michael crushing the devil that he had commissioned from the sculptor Alessandro Algardi, Pepoli finds a case displaying manuscripts and instruments belonging to a certain Professor Alessandro Codivilla.5

    But there are more surprises to come: an expression of wonder appears on the visitor's face when he enters a room that was not there in his day. In this room, adjacent to his library, there is a rare, antique bureau holding two volumes bearing the words “Guest book”: flicking through the pages, he sees more names unknown to him, such as Robert Jones, Jacque Calvé, Harry Platt, Fred Albee, and Walter Blount—well known orthopaedic surgeons.6

    His bewilderment increases when he notices some white boxes with black glass and lots of wires hanging from them. “What the devil are these contraptions?” he wonders. If he only knew that the world was only a click away!

    Confused, Taddeo Pepoli goes back into the frescoed rooms and takes one last nostalgic look at the paintings by Canuti and Haffner, paintings he had wanted so much and paid for out of his own pocket, at a cost of 12 790 Bolognese lire in 1681.2

    The abbot then decides to return to the rooms where he once lived. He is in for another surprise: going into what used to be his bedroom he sees a large walnut bookshelf lined with books. Picking up one at random, he reads “De humani corporis fabricae”—the book, one he cannot recall having seen, is by Vesalio and was printed in 1543.7 Pepoli is unaware that he is in the private library of Vittorio Putti, an avid collector of antique medical books. Among 17 superb manuscripts he finds “L'inventaire de Chirurgie” by Guy de Chauliac, dated 1468, showing extraordinary miniatures that were probably painted by a monk like himself.8 Taddeo Pepoli is taken aback also by the 66 incunabulae, which include the very rare “Anatomia” by Mondino dated 14939 and the first book on ophthalmology to be printed, in 1583.10

    Deciding to end his visit, he goes away consoled and satisfied that, although a lot has changed and the places were intended for a different use, those rooms are visited by doctors for study and reflection and that his name will be remembered forever.

    A lasting legacy

    Now, baffled reader, you may be wondering who this unknown character is and why he is being brought to your attention. It is thanks to the munificence of this abbot, who lived about 400 years ago, that we can introduce you to one of the most important international orthopaedic libraries.

    The King Umberto I Library and “Putti Donation,” now the Scientific Libraries of the Rizzoli Orthopaedic Institute, are located in the former monastery of San Michele in Bosco. The library was built in 1500 as a place of study for monks. The original frescoes were considered unfitting by Abbot Pepoli, who, at his own expense, had them repainted in 1677 by a pupil of Guido Reni. The library was used as a place of study until 1797, when, after ecclesiastic orders were abolished by Napoleon, the monks were evicted. Napoleon's soldiers destroyed the furniture, and the rich heritage of books and other objects was lost.

    The building was used as barracks, a prison, and the villa of a papal legate. After many ups and downs, it was bought by Francesco Rizzoli in 1880 and transformed into an orthopaedic institute, which was inaugurated by King Umberto I of Italy in 1896. Later, the institute was described by Harry Platt as the “Mecca of orthopaedics.”11

    The library boasts one of the finest collections of scientific journals and books on orthopaedics, and its shelves are filled with works that have made the history of this discipline. It has often been remembered kindly in the writings of foreign doctors.12 13 14 Besides providing daily help to the medical profession, the library is visited every year by doctors from all over the world when they attend international conferences at the institute, taking back home a memory of this very special place, whose motto is “Trattenete le idee ma restituite i libri”—“Take the ideas away with you, but please leave the books on the shelves.”

    Monks, artists, surgeons

    • Taddeo Pepoli (1605-1684)—The second son of a powerful Bolognese family, he was prior of Bologna Monastery six times and decided to be remembered for rebuilding the “superb library, pride and joy of the city.”1

    • Domenico Maria Canuti (1625-1684)—A painter of Guido Reni and Guercino's school; among his numerous works was the library of San Michele in Bosco.2

    • Enrico Haffner (1640-1702)—A trompe l'oeil painter who studied painting at Mitelli's school and collaborated mainly with Canuti.2

    • Pietro Rosini da Lendinara (1728-1807)—A monk who lived in the San Michele in Bosco monastery between 1755 and 1762. With the help of information provided by cartographers and travellers he made the splendid globe that can be seen in the library.3

    • Alessandro Algardi (1598-1654)—Architect and sculptor, he was a disciple of Carracci. He was known as the Bernini of sculpture.

    • Francesco Rizzoli (1809-1880)—The fame of this Bolognese general surgeon went so far beyond local boundaries that he was called to Aspromonte to treat the wounded Garibaldi. In 1880 he bought the monastery of San Michele in Bosco from the state to found the orthopaedic institute that bears his name.4

    • Alessandro Codivilla (1861-1912)—Director of the Rizzoli Orthopaedic Institute from 1899 to 1912, he is considered to be the founder of orthopaedic surgery in Italy.5 15 16 17

    • Vittorio Putti (1880-1940)—Pupil of Professor Codivilla, he followed him as director of the Institute Rizzoli from 1912 until his sudden death in 1940. He was an ingenious surgeon who devoted his life to the Institute and rose to the highest scientific level,18 19 and a keen bibliophile and meticulous collector of antique medical objects. In his own office-library, now called Putti Donation, he created a little museum of the history of medicine, which now contains more than 1000 rare antique books of medicine, 700 portraits, etchings, photographs of famous doctors, and surgical instruments from the Roman period.8 20


    • We thank Giuseppina Sivieri, Laura Curia, Liliana Draghetti, Anna Di Nardo for their valuable historical research and Keith Smith for translating the article.

    • Contributors: AV had the idea and did bibliographic research, PT wrote the article, CM edited it, and PP revised it. PP is guarantor.

    • Funding: No additional funding.

    • Competing interests: None declared.


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