Massa, Niccolo

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(b. Venice, Italy, 1485; d. Venice 1569)


Massa, a medical graduate of Padua, practiced medicine in Venice, where he was known chiefly as clinician and syphilologist. Owing to his belief that the physician ought to have a sound knowledge of anatomy, he undertook a program of dissection and investigation of the human body at least from 1526 to 1533, producing an unillustrated anatomical treatise entitled Liber introductorius anatomiae (Venice, 1536), which remained the best brief text book of the subject for a generation.

The Liber introductorius anatomiae is arranged according to the medieval pattern of anatomy established by Mondino, that is, an approach to the subject derived from the necessity of dissecting the most perishable organs first. It is based partly on the work of earlier writers, especially Galen, and partly on its author’s own dissections carried out in the convent of SS. John and Paul (fols. 26r, 56v) and the hospital of SS. Peter and Paul(fols. 10r, 26r) in Venice as well as others performed on the bodies of stillborn infants(fols. 7v, 43v).

Since Massa was over fifty years old when he composed his book, its text does not reflect to any large degree the alterations in favor of classical anatomical terminology that the humanists were introducing at the time. Nevertheless he was the first to employ the term panniculus carnosus(for. 8r). Of his descriptions it may be said that he provided a relatively good account of the abdominal wall, noted the tendinous intersections of the rectus abdominis muscle(fol.11v), and referred very briefly to the inguinal canal (fol. 13r). He described the intestinal canal with some accuracy (fols. 18v–23r), including an account of the appendix, which he thought tended to disappear with maturity (fols.20v–21r). He mentioned the variation in size of the spleen in ailments involving that organ, declaring that he had observed it “very large and extending into the lower parts”(fol. 26v). He declared the liver to be divided usually into five lobes, although sometimes finding it undivided or divided into only two parts (fol. 27r), but asserted that the portal vein is always divided into five main branches (fol. 27r). In his description of the kidneys he proved by blowing through a reed that the cavity of the renal veins is not continuous with that of the sinus of the kidney (fol. 31v). This contribution was important, even though the fact had been alluded to earlier by Berengario da Carpi, since the kidneys were usually thought to be filters straining urine out of blood. Massa held that the right kidney is normally higher than the left, although he declared that he had twice seen the reverse (fol. 32r). He briefly noted the difference in the levels of orgin of the spermatic vessels on two sides (fol. 33r)—a fact known to Mondino—and made brief reference to the prostate (for. 34r), the first reference to that organ. He denied the belief in the seven-celled uterus, declaring the uterus to contain only a single cavity (fol.45r).

Massa gave credence to the existence of the rate mirabile in the human brain, but admitted that there was disagreement on this matter, and wrote “some dare to say that this rate is a figment of Galen…but I myself have often seen and demonstrated it… thought sometimes I have found it to be very small” (fols. 89v–90r). Generally speaking, Massa’s long description of the brain was traditional and unsatisfactory. On the other hand Massa was the first after Berengario da Carpi to refer to the malleus and incus, although his short statement refers to both ossicles under the work malleolus (fols. 93r–v). Thus he left to Vesalius the opportunity of providing better and more appropriate names.

Within its limits, and despite a considerable residue of Galenic anatomy, the Liber introductorius anatomiae contains shrewd observations often tempered by curious errors. For examples of the latter, it describes certain nonexistent cardiac valves (fol. 55v), and Massa asserted that he had sometimes found a third ventricle in the heart (fol. 56r). Despite its merits the book is distinctly pre-Vesalian. The reissue of the book in 1559 was unsuccessful.


In addition to a few autobiographical notes in the Liber introductorius anatomiae, what further information there is on the life of Massa is in Luigi Nardo, “Dell’anatomia in Venezia,“in Ateneo Veneto, fasc. 2–3 (1897), with additional notes by Cesare Musatti. The full title of Massa’s anatomical treatise is Liber introductorius anatomiae, sive dissectionis corporis humani, nunc primum ab ipso auctore in lucem aeditus, in quo quamplurima membra, operationes, & utilitates tam ab antiquis, quam a modernis praetermissa manifestantur. Venetiis in vico sancti Moysi, aput [sic] signum archangeli Raphaelis, in aedibus Francisci Bindoni, as Maphei Pasini, socios [sic], accuratissimae [sic] impressum. Mense Novembri, MDXXXVI. The reissue of 1559 was also published in Venice, Ex officina stellae Jordani Zilleti.

C. D. O’Malley

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Massa, Niccolo

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Massa, Niccolo