The Sala Gimbernat

A hidden secret lies in the heart of Barcelona. All tourists that visit the city walk down the famous “Les Rambles”, enjoying its flowers, human statues, and curious personalities. Many of them also wander around the nearby Raval, an exciting but traditionally marginal quarter that is now a combination of prostitutes, nightlife, trendy shops, and immigrants from all over the world. Maybe some also visit the old “Hospital de la Santa Creu” garden. They might even notice that are in one of the most ancient hospitals in the world, from the early 15th century. In the garden they can have an “Estrella” beer on a terrace while enjoying one of Barcelona’s many sunny days, gazing at the magnificent Gothic wings of the Hospital – now Catalunya’s National Library. But very few of these tourists, that admire Gaudi’s architecture all over the city, realize that one of the hospital buildings obscures an astonishing 17th century anatomical theatre, the Sala Gimbernat. This is a secret that remains unknown even to many of the locals.

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– The “Sala Gimbernat” brings us to almost 250 years ago. Image licensed under Creative Commons.

Now one of the few anatomical theatres preserved around the world, the origins of the Sala Gimbernat can be traced back to the medieval period. Already during the 15th century, a wooden anatomical theater existed in a predecessor of the Barcelona University called “Estudis Generals” that was situated in the top of “Les Rambles” which did not then exist. From there it was moved to a location near the so-called “corralet”, the hospital cemetery. This was done for two reasons. First, the “Estudis” were covered with an unbearable whiff coming from the anatomical lessons, even though they were only performed in winter due to the hot Mediterranean summers. Second, the new site was excellent, as the freshly dead corpses from the Hospital, together with those unclaimed sentenced to death, kept the anatomical theater in plenty supply!

Yet, not much is known about this primitive wooden anatomical theater. After approximately two hundred years, in 1714, Catalans lost against the Bourbon King Philip V at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. Then, the “Estudis Generals” were moved out of the city as a retaliation for the students’ strong fighting during the siege of Barcelona. As a result, the anatomical theatre was left without users and turned into a warehouse. It was not until more than forty-five years later, in 1760s, when surgeons were needed due to wars in the Americas, that the Catalan surgeon Pere Virgili (1699-1776) promoted the creation of the Royal College of Surgery of Barcelona, the second of the state after the Cadiz one.

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– The surgeon Pere Virgili in a 19th century engraving. Image licensed under Creative Commons.

Of course, the College needed a proper anatomical theatre, so one was built out of concrete approximately in the same location as the former wooden theatre, near the “corralet”. With few nineteenth century upgrades, this theatre is what we can still visit today. A wonderful marble rotating table that allowed the lecturer to show the anatomical details to the students dominates the centre of the theatre. In the middle of the table, a hole drained the blood and other bodily fluids. It seems that beyond students, the general public was also interested in the lectures, as shown by the presence of an elevated walkway, allowing for extra attendees. Behind lattices, upper class people and nurses from the Hospital were able watch the dissections without being seen or intrusive.

The theater was named after Antoni Gimbernat (1734-1816), another Catalan anatomist known for laying the groundwork for modern techniques of inguinal hernia repair. In the Sala, lecturing for five years, was also Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934) first Spanish Medicine Nobel laureate in 1906 for his pioneering work on the structure of the brain, primarily made during his time in Barcelona.

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– The Medical School left the “Sala Gimbernat” in the early 20th century. Image licensed under Creative Commons.

Eventually, the medieval cementery, the “corralet”, became a children’s playground and the theatre was only used in the meetings of the Catalan Royal Academy of Medicine. Every now and then, the site hosts some theatrical performances that use the dramatic power of the venue. With its splendid glass lamp and all the history that surrounds the place, the Sala Gimbernat is an imposing anatomical theatre waiting for visitors along Barcelona’s medieval streets. If you pay a visit, perhaps you will even notice a strange putrid smell…

Address: Carrer del Carme, 08001 Barcelona, Spain

Further information

Martínez-Vidal, A., & Pardo-Tomás, J. (2005). Anatomical theatres and the teaching of anatomy in early modern Spain. Medical History, 49(3), 251–80.

Albiol Molné, R. (1992). Pere Virgili: (1699-1776). Fundació Uriach 1838.

Granada, Spain

The Alhambra, Granada - Spain

The Alhambra, Granada - Spain, by kevinpoh. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Cordoba was taken by the Christians in 1236, but Granada remained in Moorish hands until 1492, a refuge for artists and others who had been driven out of Cordoba, Seville, and elsewhere. Granada contains the most brilliant of all the products of Moorish architecture, the elaborate, intricately decorated Alhambra, with its gardens, courtyards, galleries, and statues-one of the artistic wonders of Europe. At one time Granada also had an acclaimed medical center and, at the time of the great plague, emissaries came here from all over Europe to consult (unsuccessfully) with local physicians. Where was the former medical center and have any of its buildings survived? There are no plaques or signs to tell us.

Cordoba, Spain

La Mezquita at Cordoba

La Mezquita at Cordoba by kevinpoh. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

In Cordoba we can feel closer than in any other Spanish city to erstwhile Islamic intellectual activity. For one thing, the city was the birthplace of the two greatest philosophers of the twelfth century, Ibn Rushd (who remained here for most of his life) and Maimonides (who moved to Cairo as a youth). For another, the Mezquita, the great mosque, has been preserved in all its grandeur – unfortunately with a garish Christian church built within its walls, making for a truly bizarre combination of architectural styles. And the mosque is undoubtedly where teachers and pupils would gather for discussion and where scribes would make their copies, for classrooms and libraries lay normally within the precincts of mosques.

Adjacent to the Mezquita is the old Jewish quarter (Juderia) , with narrow streets filled with lively crowds and, on summer evenings, the gay sound of guitars and flamenco dancers. There is a Plaza de Maimonides here and a statue of Maim on ides in the Plaza de Tiberiades. There is a statue of Averroes (Ibn Rushd) in the loco, where craftsmen now have their stalls. There is also a municipal museum, but don’t expect any reverence there for the golden years of yore-the museum is devoted almost exclusively to bullfighting and to Cordoba’s famous matadors.

Toledo, Spain

Toledo Cathedra

Toledo Cathedral, by shiladsen. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Toledo stands in a loop of the Tagus (Tajo) River, on a site of unsurpassed beauty. An unforgettable view of the town, with brilliant blue Castilian sky in the background, is obtained from the Parador Conde de Orgaz, a state-owned hotel on the steep hills of the southern river bank. Toledo was “liberated” by Christian forces at an early stage of the wars to wrest control from the Muslims, even earlier than Cordoba, but its Castilian rulers were first tolerant and encouraged intermingling of the races, so that Moorish traditions of education and culture continued for some time. In the twelfth century Toledo was probably the most important Jewish town in all of Europe; Rabbi ben Ezra lived here during that period. In fact, the realization that there used to be close intermin- gling of Jewish and Islamic intellectuals is an important lesson to be learned from a visit here-the beautiful El Transito synagogue, built in the fourteenth century, has been recently restored. Nearby is the El Greco museum, commemorating the great artist from Crete who came to live and paint in Toledo at the invitation of Philip 11 in 1585. Many of his paintings may be seen in a gallery in Toledo’s cathedral.

Altamira Cave near Santillana del Mar, Spain

Reproduction of Altamira cave painting

Reproduction of Altamira cave painting by A.M. Kuchling. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Altamira Cave, about 1.3 miles (2 km) from the Cantabrian village of Santillana del Mar, lies in tranquil, rolling country, quite different from the cave art area in the Dordogne, where the caves are set in steep limestone cliffs. The paintings in the cave date from about 15,000 to 12,000 B.C. The spectacular ceiling frescoes show remarkably realistic full-color representations of bison in various poses (asleep, running, and so forth), wild boar, primitive horses, and reindeer. They provide excellent examples of the three-dimensional effect achieved by taking advantage of undulations in the rock surface. Access to the cave is through a visitor center and, unfortunately, conservation measures require that only a handful of people can be admitted each day, the precise number depending on outside humidity and temperature. Even with this restriction there are signs of some surface deterioration, so that, to be realistic, one must be prepared for the possibility that the cave may some day be closed to the public altogether. At the present time appointments for viewing must be made in writing at least six months in advance. Coming without reservation one can camp on the doorstep, hoping that some visitors with permission will not show up, in which case one may be admitted if the guards are in a charitable mood.

If one succeeds in getting in, then the caves will be found to be an unforgettable sight, a humbling experience in a way for those who vaguely think of artistic creation as something that began in Italy in the Renaissance. The Altamira caves are more spacious than the caves built into the cliffs in the Dordogne area in France and the size of each viewing group is limited to only five people, which makes for a more relaxed visit and greater opportunity to examine the pictures in detail.

For those who fail to be admitted, there is a museum and a videotaped film. The latter is badly produced and cannot be recommended as a substitute for the real thing. We  recommend instead the realistic reproduction of the Altamira ceiling which can be seen at the Le Thot Center of Prehistory in the Dordogne, as part of a visit to the cave art in that area. There is also a reproduction of the Altamira ceiling in the Museo Arqueologico Nacional in Madrid-we have not seen it and therefore cannot comment on it.

It should be noted that Santillana del Mar itself is an extraordinary little place, well worth a visit. It has cobbled streets, old village houses still shared by the owners with their livestock, churches, fountains, and so on, all astonishingly well preserved from Santillana’s fifteenth-century heyday.