Andreas Vesalius’ On the Fabric of the Human
Body is arguably the best-known book produced in the history of
Western medicine. Published at the height of the Renaissance,
when Vesalius was a lecturer at the University of Padua, it is an exhaustive
visual atlas and verbal description of human anatomy. The massive Latin
text of more than 700 folio pages was illustrated by 171 large and remarkable
woodcuts attributed to a follower of Titian.
A book of great intellectual complexity and physical beauty, it was
also a work of daring, as Vesalius used the new technology of printing
to advance anatomical knowledge as well as attitudes toward the human
body. The images were based on the meticulous observation (often Vesalius’ own) of dissected cadavers; he relied on judges and jailers for access
to the condemned and their bodies. The resulting illustrations were
works of art in their own right, far exceeding all previous anatomical
images in clarity and detail.
The original book imaged for this digital edition:
16 1/8 x 11 3/8 inches (410 x 289 mm)
Vesalius, the famous dissector, had a lot more than skeletons in his closet when he began to work on De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body): he also had bodies under his bed. Human cadavers were hard to come by in early modern Europe, despite the lawfulness of dissection as a teaching tool. Vesalius sought the corpses of executed criminals from judges and jailers, but was not above receiving bodies at the hands of grave robbers, hiding the stolen goods in his private chambers. Octavo’s Edition of Vesalius’ De Fabrica, (Basel, 1543) contains many images of these bodies; skeletons can be found in views 90 and 91, and dissected cadavers appear throughout the book.
Andreas Vesalius revolutionized the study of the human anatomy with the illustrations in De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body, 1534), but he also skillfully employed devices for organizing the contents of books that originated in antiquity and were codified during the Middle Ages. One such manuscript practice adopted by Renaissance printers was historiated initials, essential elements in any hierarchical arrangement of text. Apart from their decorative aspects, they were an effective means of indicating paragraphs and chapter divisions. Many of the earliest printed books were in fact issued without initial capitals: these were to be supplied, often in red ink, by a scribe, with space for more elaborate historiated treatment of the initial letter if desired. When printers began to outfit themselves with suites of decorative initials cut in wood in order to dispense with the costly and unpredictable efforts of the individual scribe or illuminator, inevitably their choice fell upon types that might be useful in many circumstances. However, due regard was paid to the requirements of the text: a printer might have one set of historiated initials suitable for classical texts and another for ecclesiastical publications. But only in the case of a book that was almost self-consciously intended as an illustrated masterwork or display piece would author and printer go to the trouble and expense of supplying specially cut initial letters. Such a book was Vesalius’ De Fabrica.
Andreas Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body, 1543) is a massive book, containing over 700 folio pages, nearly 300 splendid woodcut illustrations, and a full range of historiated woodcut initials. The author intended it for physicians and scholars who could afford it and appreciate its extensive detail. But Vesalius did not ignore the needs of students. In the same year, he published a shorter version, with fewer but not lesser illustrations, in both Latin and German. Ultimately, De Fabrica is as much a work of art as it is a Renaissance Physician’s Desk Reference. What makes the images artistic as well as utilitarian is that the skeletons are expressive – showing a range of poses and emotions whose “life” offers a striking balance to their stated purpose and condition.