The person who commissioned the Temple of Minerva Medica at Montefoscoli described in my previous post, Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri was the son of Francesco Vaccà Berlinghieri (1732-1812), professor of medicine at the University of Pisa.
Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri was born in Montefoscoli in 1772 and died at Orzignano, near San Giuliano Terme (Pisa) in 1826. He is remembered as a pioneer in pressing for more suitable hospital facilities and designing more adequate and efficient surgical instruments – a necessary thing in the days before anaesthetics when the best way to keep patients calm during operations and amputations was to get them blind-drunk.
Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri was sent by his father to Paris to study medicine. After two years there, Andrea went to London to work under the Scottish surgeon John Hunter, (1728-1793), one of the most distinguished surgeons of his day and an advocate of precise diagnosis in medical science.
London’s Hunterian Society was named in Hunter’s honour, and the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons preserves his name and his collection of anatomical specimens. This collection, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields on the opposite side of the square to the Sir John Soane museum, is full of the most fascinating specimens, including skeletons of dwarfs, giants and various examples of genetic malformations. (A warning for the squeamish: if you don’t like to see examples of rodent ulcers in formaldehyde, don’t visit the museum.):
In 1791 Andrea returned to Pisa from London, where he graduated in medicine and surgery.
Two years later Vaccà wrote a treatise on surgical techniques and began to give well-attended lectures. In addition to medicine Andrea devoted himself to the study of chemistry, physics, mathematics and astronomy.
Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri became Professor of Surgery at Pisa, and is regarded as the founder of Pisa’s Medical School. The excellence of Pisa’s Ospedale di Santa Chiara, where I have, on occasions, had to visit friends in serious clinical conditions, is in no small part due to Vaccà’s efforts in improving hygiene practise and diagnosis methods.
During his stay in Pisa the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley had the chance to know, appreciate and be treated by Vaccà. In their meetings they would also share their passions for architecture, poetry and esotericism. In particular, Vaccà’s surgical experiments, including the stitching together of different body parts and the use of galvanic batteries to make muscles convulse, inspired Shelley’s wife to write her famous gothic novel Frankenstein, an amazing achievement for a nineteen-year old and one whose financial returns enabled her to bring in much needed funds for their exile in Italy. (Indeed, there are letters stating how both Shelleys followed intently the sales of Frankenstein while living in Bagni di Lucca).
How I would have loved to be a fly on the wall at their convivial meetings!
I was privileged to spend the night in Vaccà’s home in his native town of Montefoscoli. Lady Sophia Donalisio, Vaccà’s direct descendent, has excellently turned the palazzo into a house-museum where her forefather’s medical treatises and surgical instruments are displayed. I was reminded a little of the Hunterian museum in London – without the rodent ulcers, of course!
The palazzo’s interior is very attractive in presenting the Italian equivalent of the UK’s Regency style in the room decorations. There are gracious items of furniture, including a wonderful grand piano dating from the first quarter of the nineteenth century,
Montefoscoli is, itself, an exquisite Tuscan borgo to visit and is filled with many picturesque corners.
It also has the most delightful long views over southern Tuscany.
There is even more to see at Vaccà’s palazzo since, attached to it, is one of Italy’s best museums of by-gone peasant life with fascinating insights into the way viniculture, bee-keeping, threshing and agricultural life in general was conducted when Italy was a barely industrialised country.
Times of opening are as follows:
Sundays 9.30 am -12.30 am / 3.30 pm -7.30 pm
Other times by appointment.
The museum’s web site is at