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Vesalius’ 'De Humani Corporis Fabrica’

Image from Vesalius’ 'De Humani Corporis Fabrica’

Andreas Vesalius’ ‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica’
British Library 548.i.2.(1)
Copyright © The British Library Board
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At the age of 28, Andreas Vesalius was already a professor at the University of Padua when he conceived and wrote his Latin treatise ‘On the Structure of the Human Body’. Published in 1543, the book ousted some assumptions of ancient Greeks philosophy that had remained unchallenged during the middle ages. It was not only a milestone in medicine. The beautifully engraved illustrations filling its seven volumes also claim a place for the book in the art history of printing.

What do we know about Vesalius?

Andreas Vesalius was born in Brussels in 1514. His father was an apothecary, the equivalent of a modern pharmacist, at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. At 15, Vesalius went to the University of Louvain, and it was probably here that he decided to follow family tradition and embark on a career in medicine.

Vesalius enrolled in the medical school in Paris, but when war broke out between France and Charles V, he was obliged to return to Louvain. In Paris, his training had been largely theoretical, with little emphasis on practical dissection. In Louvain, his influential connections enabled him to attend autopsies and even obtain bodies to dissect for himself. On one occasion he is known to have stolen a corpse hanging from the town scaffold.

When he was 23, Vesalius moved to the University of Padua, then the most prestigious medical school in Europe. Upon graduation, he was immediately appointed a professor. Dissections were a regular part of the school’s teaching, each lasting for over three weeks. Vesalius introduced printed sheets and drawings to help his students understanding of what they saw.

In 1538, he arranged the publication of six anatomical illustrations, based on his own sketches, by a Dutch artist called Jan van Calcar. The plates proved a great success and were widely copied. Work began on his great book two years later and was finished in 1542.

Vesalius dedicated the work to Charles V, “the Mightiest and Most Unvanquished Emperor”, and presented him with a special copy, printed on vellum and coloured. The triumph of the book, and its astute dedication, secured him the lucrative and prestigious post of court physician to the emperor.

Vesalius died in 1564 on his way home from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, after apparently being shipwrecked on Zakynthos, an island off the west coast of Greece.

What’s in the book?

‘De Fabrica’ contains discussions and illustrations of the structure, function and pathology of the human body. The various parts are given their names in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Vesalius notes the opinions of other authorities as well as expressing his own. He also includes tales of his experiences in grave-robbing and dissection.

The illustrations portray the human body in progressive stages of dissection, set before a landscape and posed according to the taste of the day for the sculpture of Classical antiquity. In one plate, for example, a skeleton rests its elbow on a tomb with its skull bent in contemplation of mortality – though perhaps a little too late!

Who made the illustrations?

The wood-block engravings are of exceptional quality. It’s known they were engraved on pear wood in Venice, but the identity of the artist and the debt owed to Vesalius’ own drawings, are uncertain. He may have been one of the artists in the workshop of Titian, the greatest of Venetian painters. The artistic quality of the engravings underlines the author’s intention for his book to serve as a guide for painters and sculptors as well as physicians.

To print the book, Vesalius chose Joannes Oporinus of Basel who had already distinguished himself by printing other learned medical texts. Oporinus also had the advantage of having studied medicine briefly himself. His choice of printer meant the delicate woodblocks had to be transported across the Alps to Switzerland. Nervous of their being damaged, Vesalius implored the merchants carrying them to take extreme care of the consignment in which he had invested so much time and money.

Why was the book so important?

‘De Fabrica’ is innovative from the start. Its frontispiece shows the author in a crowded anatomy theatre dissecting a corpse – a new ‘hands-on’ approach for physicians, who usually supervised the procedure from a distance while barber-surgeons carried out the bloody business of dissection.

Since medieval times the medical profession had been split into two ranks: physicians and barber-surgeons, each with their own guilds. The historic reason was a Church ruling against the spilling of blood by men in holy orders, which early physicians often were. Operations such as blood-letting and amputation, therefore, fell to the secular barber-surgeons.

Vesalius’ direct observation meant he was able to correct several misunderstandings about human anatomy that had their origin in the writings of Greek philosophers, such as Galen, who based their descriptions on the dissection of animals. In one of his illustrations Vesalius alludes to the confusion this caused by including a dog with one paw transformed into a human foot. He corrects Galen’s assertion that the human jaw was made of two bones like a dog’s.

The literary quality of its Latin prose, spaciously set in elegant type, and the sublime quality of its illustrations combined to raise the book above the level of previous medical treatises. As a luxury item designed to appeal to wealthy intellectuals, it was comparable to the devotional religious texts of earlier times.

Like a medieval manuscript, some initial letters are decorated with cherubs, but here they play at dissection rather than attending saints. Vesalius certainly regarded his work as revealing God’s purpose through a greater understanding of the divinely created human body.

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