Bologna Medicina – il Festival della Scienza Medica is the result of opportunity meeting demand, actually many demands – not the least of which were location and subject matter.

It was undoubtedly apt, for starters, that a discourse on the subject of medicine, one that looked to public involvement and debate on the subject, be located at the seat of the very first modern medical school.  Ambling through Bologna’s medieval neighbourhood is all about promenading along the porticoes and arcades of this beautiful town, and taking in the fact that so very many of the buildings one walks past make reference to, or are named after, all matters medicinal, tracing as it were the evolution of medical knowledge.  And so we have the inner courtyard of the Archiginnasio building, for instance, and the conference hall of the Società Medica Chirurgica that it houses, then there is the Sant’Orsola Hospital, the grim sounding Portico della Morte (the arcade of death),  and the former Anatomy Wax Museum (now the  Anatomy and Pathological Histology Museum). The list goes on, for the urban foundations of the town are steeped in the study of medicine.

The second requirement, the choice of subject matter, came about after various considerations.  The issue of social security having maybe, or at least hopefully, run its course in public debate, it was thought that the next pressing question to affect us all would include queries on: how is society to deal with the growing demand for well-being, health and cures, both at present and in the foreseeable future, when the age of its elderly population continues to rise?  What kind of answers can be put forward by economics, by politics and finance, and by the day-to-day running of health institutions?  What is the cost of providing access to new therapies and treatments?

As a result, the theme of this first series of events bears the title “A Long Life”. And all that that entails: a sense of achievement, the breadth and wealth of opportunity, yes, but also the taking on of a heavy social responsibility.

In putting together this programme, we made a point of covering the many demands, challenges and the future developments of cutting-edge scientific research.  These include: regenerative medicine, the dream of achieving immunity from and control over cancer, pain-control medicine and placebos, organ transplants, new imaging technology, long distance communication and telemedicine.  The list continues with:  the new frontiers of biotechnology, artificial insemination, nutraceuticals, and the very recent geroscience.  Even a brief look at our calendar of events will reveal the calibre of the speakers and researchers who accepted our invitation to participate, including four Nobel-prize winners for medicine, and this can only augur well and make for an excellent start.

“A Long Life” as a theme furthermore acts as a portmanteau for the exploration of more consolidated perspectives such as: custom-tailored medicine, medicine-based narrative, pointers arising from fantasy novels, the concerns of legal medicine, anthropology, the evolutionary perspective on ageing, and the ethics of handling brain death (Finis vitae).  It is a theme that is well equipped to tackle current controversial issues, such as vaccination, or to come forward with new perspectives in the field of gender medicine: when it comes to depression and osteoporosis, for instance, how are men and women differently influenced?

Another important demand we wanted to satisfy was to look at medicine through the role it has played in religious beliefs, history, epistemology, legal systems, literature, plays and films … culture, in other words.  Hence a look at the plague contemplated by Boccaccio, on top of the more ancient ones, Ebola, the birth of syphilis, Spanish flu, the evolutionary heuristic transition from belief in demons to belief in genes; the meeting of, and reciprocal influencing between, epistemological research and clinical investigation, and the conflict between hospital and court in defensive medicine.  And, also, the overview comparing and contrasting medical systems in major religions.

It was important to include attractions for the younger generations too.  Primary-school aged children will be taken for a guided visit to the Theatre of Anatomy with age appropriate lessons on human anatomy.  Older pupils will get to play a history themed game at school called ‘Pandemic’, a board game akin to Risk or Monopoly, which was specifically thought out so as to provide an exciting learning experience. And the senior pupils will get a chance to attend a staged hospital visit at the Palazzo Re Enzo, as they follow the Head Physician’s traditional ward inspection with actors playing the part of patients in real hospital beds, enacting old and new sicknesses. All of the above is certain to deliver an exciting bio-medical dictionary of key themes.

Palazzo Re Enzo will also be home to a ‘Social Box’ which is there to invite anyone who cares to contribute linguistic inventions and co-create with us a playful shared context in search of new made-up ‘illnesses’ – a game that is hoped to be picked up on by social networks.

There will be three exhibitions: a selection from ‘The Burns Archive’, which was consulted during the making of the American TV series ‘The Knick’, in the Archiginnasio courtyard;  ‘Curare e Guarire’ (Curing and Healing) in the Sala degli Atti of Palazzo Re Enzo; and the Wax Museum and new Settoria Hall at the Institute of Anatomy.  During the Festival you will also be able to visit the Palazzo Poggi museum and the halls of Santa Maria della Vita and San Colombano, all open for the occasion.

It was fitting that real patients also be catered to in the programme and Bologna Medicina will be present and active within the waiting rooms of the Ospedale Maggiore, the Sant’Orsola, the Rizzoli, the Bellaria, and the Seragnoli Hospice.  Various chamber concerts will be held and readings from Italian literature will be staged for the audiences of long-term patients, children, their families and the care-giving personnel.

The public will also be offered live shows in the evenings centred around the literature of well known doctor-writers such as Čechov, Cronin, Bulgakov, Céline, and Sacks.   Italian actor Massimo Popolizio will recite selected texts.  The role of doctors in literature and drama will be documented and Bologna’s Cineteca will showcase a video mashup drawn from great movies on the subject.

A concluding ‘book-ending day’ will be held on 26 May to weigh up the results and the public will be welcome to attend a debate around the theme ‘How to Multiply the Code of Life’ with key speaker and 1993 Nobel-Prize winner for Chemistry Kary Mullis.

This event-rich programme seeks not only to actively involve the town by inviting the public to attend the many attractions but to do so using the town itself —  its arcades, the hospitals, its institutions – as a non-negotiable backdrop and meeting ground with which to spark off interest, conversation and debate.

See you in Bologna, then, to discuss our health and our future.

Gilberto Corbellini and Pino Donghi