Vesalius (1514-1564) the most famous anatomist of the renaissance, following the traces of Leonardo but for the main part relying on the experiences of his own dissections, provided a description of the human body with previously unprecedented level of detail.
Though Vesalius’ work was not the first such work based on actual autopsy, nor even the first work of this era, the production values, highly detailed and intricate plates, and the likelihood that the artists who produced it were clearly present at the dissections themselves made it into an instant classic. Vesalius had the work published at the age of 28, taking great pains to ensure its quality.
The more than 250 illustrations are of great artistic merit and are generally attributed by modern scholars to the “studio of Titian”, especially to the former Titian apprentice Jan Stephan van Calcar who create the artistic and scientific illustrations of the book.
The woodcuts were greatly superior to the illustrations in anatomical atlases of the day, which were never made by anatomy professors themselves. The woodcut blocks were transported to Basel, Switzerland as Vesalius wished that the work be published by one of the foremost printers of the time, Johannes Oporinus. Vesalius’ written directions to Oporinus (the iter) were so valuable the printer decided to include them. The illustrations were engraved on wooden blocks, which allowed for very fine artistic value.
The book contains discussions and illustrations of the structure, function and pathology of the human body. The different parts are named in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. The author also notes the opinions of oer 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! Soon after publication many pirate copies appeared, bringing European fame to Vesalius.
An uncommon practice of his time, Andreas Vesalius relied on the experiences of his own dissections and provided a description of the human body with previously unprecedented level of detail. He was born in Brussels on the last day of 1514 or on the first day of 1515. He came from a family of physicians, which must be the reason for his devotion to surgery and anatomy.
At age 15 he left Brussels to study in Louvain, later studied medicine at Montpellier and Paris before returning to Louvain again, but this time not as a student but to teach anatomy. Later he lectured at the prestigious university of Padua, and was a guest lecturer at the University of Bologna. He was only 28 years old when he published his great works, the De Humani Corporis Fabrica libri septum and Epitome, latter being the summarized version of the original, a cheaper and shorter version made specifically for his students to use.
The collection of books are based on his Paduan lectures, during which he deviated from common practice by dissecting a corpse to illustrate what he was discussing. Dissections previously had been performed by a barber surgeon under the direction of a doctor of medicine, who was expected not to perform manual labour. Vesalius’ “hands-on” magnum opus presents a careful examination of the organs and the complete structure of the human body. This would not have been possible without the many advances that had been made during the Renaissance, including both artistic developments in literal visual representation and the technical development of printing refined woodcut engravings. Because of these developments and his careful, immediate involvement, he was able to produce illustrations superior to any that had been produced up to then.
After the book was published Vesalius sent a beautiful copy bound in imperial purple silk, printed on parchment to the Emperor, Charles V. When the Emperor received it, he called Vesalius to his court, and was asked to work as an Imperial surgeon. Because of this offer, Vesalius turned Cosimo de Medici down, who offered him a place as a professor at the university of Padua. Over the next eleven years Vesalius traveled with the court, treating injuries from battle or tournaments, performing postmortems, administering medications, and writing private letters addressing specific medical questions.
After the abdication of Emperor Charles V he continued at court in great favor with his son Philip II, who rewarded him with a pension for life by making him a count palatine. In 1555 he published a revised edition of De humani corporis fabrica.
In 1564 Vesalius went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. When he arrived to Jerusalem he received a message from the Venetian senate requesting him again to accept the Paduan professorship, which had become vacant by the death of his friend and pupil Fallopius. After struggling for many days with the adverse winds and he was wrecked on the island of Zakynthos.
He was buried somewhere in the island of Korfu in 1564.
- Images courtesy of the British Library
We have 1 facsimile edition of the manuscript "Andreas Vesalius: De Humani Corporis Fabrica": Andreas Vesalius: De Humani Corporis Fabrica facsimile edition, published by Pytheas Books, 2004Request Info / Price