Alessandra in History
Was Alessandra Giliani a real person? I wasn’t able to find a written record of her name in original documents preceding the 18th century. And yet there’s a persistent and compelling myth of her life and accomplishments. For me—and for many others—the myth is confirmed by manuscript illuminations showing someone who is clearly female assisting the 14th century anatomist Mondino de Liuzzi.
One very distinguished librarian I spoke to in Emilia-Romagna speculated that Alessandra’s accomplishments were so at odds with the Church that records of not only her but also her entire family may well have been destroyed. At least one Italian scholar of medical history feels that it was, in fact, a chronicler of Persiceto in the 18th century who made up the whole story.
It’s hard to know the truth about things that happened—or didn’t happen—so very long ago.
A funerary urn containing Alessandra’s mortal remains is supposed to have been placed in the wall of a particular church in Bologna—perhaps the church that stands today in the Campo di S. Pietro e Marcellino. That church was covered in scaffolding during the entire time I was doing my research for the novel. I am still trying to find more precise information about whether and where this urn exists today (I recently ran across a source that claims it’s in Florence!). The stone of the urn is said to be inscribed with the following words:
In quest’urna le ceneri di Alessandra Giliani, una giovane di Persiceto, abile nelle dimostrazioni anatomiche e discepola, eguagliata da pochi, di uno dei più famosi medici, Mondino de’ Liuzzi, attendono la resurrezione. Essa visse 19 anni. Morì, consumata dal suo duro lavoro, il 26 marzo, anno di grazia 1326. Ottone Agenius Lustrulanus, con la sua perdita deprivato della sua parte migliore, suo eccellente compagno che ne meritò il meglio, eresse questa lapide.
“In this urn, awaiting the Resurrection, are the mortal remains of Alessandra Giliani, young woman of Persiceto, adept at anatomical demonstrations and unequalled disciple of the most famous doctor, Mondino de’ Liuzzi. She died at the age of 19, consumed by her hard work, on the 26th of March, year of our Lord 1326. This plaque was put here by Ottone [Otto] Agenius Lustrulanus, deprived by her loss of his better half, his excellent companion who deserved the best.”