The theatre was usually a room of roughly amphitheatrical shape, in the centre of which would stand the table on which the dissections of human or animal bodies took place. Around this table were several circular, elliptic or octagonal tiers with railings, steeply tiered so that students or other observers could stand and get a good view of the dissection almost from above and unencumbered by the spectators in the rows in front. It was common to display skeletons at some place in the theatre; in Leiden, 17th-century depictions show that the living observers were actually accompanied in the rows by a large number of animal and human skeletons, some of which held banners with inscriptions such as Memento mori, or, freely translated, "Remember, you will die".
The first anatomical Theatre was built at the University of Padua in 1594 and is still preserved. Other early examples include the Theatrum Anatomicum of Leiden University, built in 1596 and reconstructed in 1988, and the Anatomical Theatre of the Archiginnasio in Bologna (whose building dates from 1563 and the anatomical theatre from 1637).