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Venice, Italy

Scuola Grande di San Marco

The marble facade hides a little-known medical museum with early surgical instruments and rare copies of canonical texts.  

Once one of the six “great schools” of Venice, the Scuola Grande di San Marco stands in the Campo di San Giovanni e Paolo in the Castello district of the city. Far from the madding crowds of the Piazza San Marco, its mighty marble facade is a sight to behold in itself.

But it’s inside that you’ll find the real marvel. While much of the building is now the city’s hospital, a palatial gallery on the first floor hosts a small medical museum. Cases display equipment used in the 19th and 20th centuries or even earlier for gynecology, trepanation, amputation, and other medical practices, many of which have since been replaced with modern techniques.

It also contains over 8,000 medical tomes, including works by ancient physicians like Galen and Hippocrates, the Persian text Avicenna’s Canon, and the writings of anatomist James Berenger. Some works feature detailed illustrations and diagrams of procedures for tackling the common ailments of the time.

It should be noted that the labels are all in Italian, and little effort has been made to draw a narrative out of the objects and books on display. But the excellent condition of the tools and equipment makes them worth seeing for their own sake. A wonderful bonus is the copy of Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica, which is a canonical text on anatomy, that is part of the exhibit.

The space itself is also a treat for architecture and art history fans, with an ornate ceiling and wall paintings dating back to the Renaissance. A small adjoining library hosts a display of facsimile copies of illuminated books, including The Divine Comedy.

Know Before You Go

Head through the main doors near the neighboring basilica. A staircase on your right will take you up into the museum. There is a charge of five euros.