ON THE TRAILS OF THE SALERNO MEDICAL SCHOOL
A similar sketch was taken in th evening from the window, of a singular lovely and eich country, which passes all my powers of description. Who would not have been disposed to study at such a spot, in those bright times, when a high school of art was flourishing?
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethe Travels in Italy)
Copyright video, photos and texts © 2020
It is one of the most significant monuments of the city. Although it has a certainly “black” reputation , so much to dissuade the frequentation after dark until dawn. The name with which it is normally defined demonstrates it: Ponte del Diavolo (Devil’s Bridge). According to a legend, the devils apparently built it in only one night, called by Pietro Barliario, a doctor expert in magic and alchemist from the 11th century. But in reality, it is not a bridge but an aqueduct with which before Barliario, in the 9th century, the water supply was provided to the convent of Saint Benedict, conveying the water of the streams from the heights to the north and East. For this purpose, two pipelines were built that joined near the eastern walls, where the imposing structure of twenty-one meters high was built. And it is characterised by ogival arches, an engineering innovation which was later widely used after the year 1000 and which still makes today the ancient aqueduct special, located in the city centre, under Mount Bonadies dominated by the Castle of Arechi.
Another mythical night, a stormy one, also links the aqueduct to Salerno’s history. Just under its arches, chosen as a shelter, four men would have met: the Arab Adela, the greek Pontus, the Jewish Elino and the Latine Salernum, all doctors. According to legend, they probably were the founders of the Salerno Medical School, a skillul synthesis of the variety of the cultural contributions, both occidental and oriental, which made great the first university institute in history. Meetings and exchanges which were certainly favoured by the vitality of the economy of the medieval Salerno, projected beyond the sea and nourished by the flourishing relationships maintained with other cities and communities of the Mediterranean basin.
Already in the 10th century in Salerno medical disciplines were taught with the contribution of scholars from various provenences. And this multiplicity of origins and contributions was fundamental for the growth and the accreditation of the School, which became the main reference point for medical studies and a very active centre for the elaboration of medical theories and practices, keeping that first prominent role, although with alternating phases, for almost nice centuries.
The magisters mostly lectured at their residences or in health centres, which were numerous in the city. Not rarely welcomed in monasteries. Among those included in the circuit of the School, there was also the Abbey of San Benedetto, probably founded by Arechi II in the 8th century. It was the last Lombard king, Gisulfo II, who in 1057 had appointed Alphanus abbot destined to become one year later the archbishop of Salerno and one of the most prominent personalities of his time. And among his many well-cultivated talents, Alphanus was also an illustrious doctor. Therefore, the abbey, included in the health centres of the School, probably saw him giving lessons to young students within its walls. Him as well, in the meantime, continued to study the texts of the ancient masters, privileging a philosophic approach to medicine which was at that time quite widespread, benefiting not a little from meetings with doctors of different training. Like the Carthaginian Constantine the Africain, who had travelled throughout the Mediterranean and in Orient, getting a great culture and a solid medical knowledge. Having luckily arrived in Italy, he stopped in Salerno, where he was held in high regard by the first Norman lord of the city, Robert Guiscard. This latter had hosted Alfano as well, who had a delicate as well as determining role in facilitating with no trauma the transition from the Lombard principality to the new Norman order. A great friend of Desiderius, abbot of Montecassino, who would have soon become Pope Victor III, he was the one who introduced him to Constantine, who decided to become a friar, retiring to Montecassino, where he dedicated himself to the translation into Latin of the basic texts of medicine, fruit of the Arab culture and of the great Greek classics of Hippocrates and Galen, of which only Arabic versions existed. A determining work for the School and, more generally, for the progress of medical science of its time. The contribution of Alphanus was also precious from that point of view. He translated works from Greek to which he added two of his own, among which a treaty about the Four Humours of the human body, which is one of the pillars of the School theoretical-practical elaboration.
As an archbishop, Alphanus was the promoter of the construction of the Cathedral inaugurated in 1804. In the chapel of Santa Caterina d’Alessandria, professors of the school net and the degrees were given, recognised in all European nations of the time, to the young doctors. Among the financiers of the Duomo factory at the time of Robert Guiscad, there were also the noblemen De Ruggiero. And the famous Trotula belonged to that Norman family and during the reign of Gisulfo, thanks to the conditions of the De Ruggieros, had not only been able to study, but to obtain a degree in medicine, becoming the first female doctor in history. She remained in her city to work as an obstetrician and also as a magistra (teacher) of the School. The De mulierum passionibus ante in e post partum is attributed to her. It is the birth certificate of obstetrics and gynecology as a medicine branch, but she also wrote the De ornatu mulierum, a short treaty about cosmetics, which she also dealt with. Trotula is certainly the most famous, but there were also many other graduated in Salerno, known as mulieres Salernitanae, including Abella Salernitana, author of De natura seminis humani, Costanza Calenda, Rebecca Guarna, Mercuriade and Sichelgaita, Robert Guiscard’s wife. The Medical School, also in line with the Lombard culture which didn’t exclude women from the possibility of studying or from the exercising power or taking up arms, didn’t make gender differences between its students. Instead, if Trotula and her colleagues specialised themselves in some branches rather than others, it was only because women could heal other women in Middle-Ages. And Trotula, then, married to the doctor Giovanni Plateario, started a dynasty of doctors with their sons Giovanni il Giovane and Matteo.
In the 12th century, the School strengthened its activity of research and training of new generations of doctors, also continuing the work of recovering, translating and divulgating fundamental Greek, Arabic and Hebrew texts (the same origins as the the mythical founders). During those years of considerable splendor, moreover, it produced many new, specialized texts, , fruit of the observations and experiences of two professional figures who were differentiating themselves: the medicus, who for its philosophic and scientific education was in charge of teaching, and the practicus, in other words the surgeon.
With Frederick II, the Salerno School experienced another golden period, since its main function was maximised in favour of public health inaugurated by the emperor, who in the Constitution of Melfi of 1231, approved the first legislation on public health, absolutely cutting edge. In addition, there was a codification of the modalities to hire doctors and medical professors and the organisation of medical studies, which included three years of logic and five of medicine and surgery, with anatomy as a compulsory subject. And for the first time, the rights and duties of the doctor with the patients were established, including the costs of each service, to be provided free of charge to the poor.
Another place closely linked to the story of the School is the Garden of Minerva, a faithful reconstruction of the the Hortus Sanitatis of the School, which is considered the most ancient botanical garden in the world. A famous doctor, Matteo Silvatico, planted and grew it. In the 14th century he used for that purpose a property belonging to his family for generations, in the centre of the medieval Salerno. There he cultivated various species of plants, the so-called “simple” ones, regularly used to prepare the School’s medicine, even if another famous Salerno doctor, Gariponto, recommended collecting the herbs on Monte Stella. And there, Silvatico, who frequented the Angevin court in Naples, gave lessons to the students, explaining them plant by plant which were its characteristics and therapeutic properties and how it should be administered to patients. On the other hand, herbal medicine was one of the strengths of the School, also inspired by the theory of the “four humors”.
Returning to the Duomo area, a short distance away, you get to the main road which crosses the whole city centre, Via dei Mercanti, known as “Drapparia” around year 1000 due to the fabric shops. Precisely in that period, in the middle of the Lombard period, the church of San Gregorio was built, with three naves, which already in 1776 underwent a first restoration under Roger II. But it was in the eighteen century that the decline started, when a part of it was demolished to facilitate the access to the Palazzo Pinto, which is today in front of it. No longer used for decades and now deconsecrated, in 2009 it has been recovered as the seat of the Virtual Museum of the Salerno School. Inside, thanks to the presence of interactive installations, the history of the School is illustrated, with a particular attention to its golden period between the 10th and the 13th centuries. The glass floor allows to observe the original structure and a series of very old surgical instruments. A special place is reserved for the story of Trotula De Ruggiero and to the medieval illuminated manuscripts with the treaties of the School, reproduced on light panels. The Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum worth a visit to the museum alone. It is the most famous work of the School also knows as Flos Medicinae Scholae Salern, is a treaty in Latin and in verse, by an anonymous author, probably co-written between the 12th and the 13th centuries, which collects all the prescriptions and recommendations regarding the healthiest lifestyle, with indications on food, the hygiene rules and the therapeutic use of herbs. The Medical School introduced and valorised the preventions of diseases with the practices it spread. The work had a huge impact and, when it could be printed, it was translated into all European languages. And the original is now on display in the Salerno Museum.
Not far away, in Via Trotula de Ruggiero, there is the Roberto Papi Museum, dedicated to the collector’s son, Mario, who has put together, over time, an extraordinary collection of medical-surgical instruments of world value. The exhibition spaces host objects attributable to all branches of medicine as they were practiced between the 17th and the 20th centuries and reproduces medical life scenes linked to the century-old story of the Salerno Medical School. Officially suppressed in 1811 by King Joachim Murat, the actual Salerno is recuperating its value also valorising the places which saw it growing and transforming itself in a world excellence.