Plate 14 from Nova Reperta
by Johannes Stradanus

Early Modern Anatomies


In 1543, Andreas Vesalius, a professor of anatomy at the University of Padua, published a breakthrough book, De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem, in which he urged his colleagues to free themselves from erroneous medical theories about the human body and to restore the study of anatomy to its rightful place in the curriculum. Innovative in its adroit exploitation of the potential of the still-new technology of printing, his book marked a decisive step forward in medical education and in empirical science based on direct observation, detailed description, and shared knowledge.

Drawing on a study of earlier writers on human anatomy, and confronting received ideas with his own anatomical observations, Vesalius pointed to errors in Galen's teachings about human anatomy. At the same time, he claimed to be returning to Galen's practice of dissection, albeit using human rather than animal bodies. Vesalius advocated full utilization of the knowledge and practices of physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries. These three groups often functioned separately in the sixteenth century: physicians taught in the universities and practiced medicine primarily on the basis of their book learning, whereas surgeons and apothecaries functioned as lower-status artisans. In his critique of the university medicine as practiced in his own day, Vesalius reproached physicians for their dependence on book-learning, their lack of hands-on knowledge of anatomy, and even their distance from direct contact with patients. He wrote, "today teachers of healing remove themselves from physical contact [with patients], as from the plague."

The handsome second edition of De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1555) is valued for its augmented and corrected text in larger type, and the superb rendition of illustrations Click Here for a Larger Viewon heavier paper. Its frontispiece, however, is different from that of 1543, and is generally seen as having lost some of the beauty and fluid treatment of draperies of the early woodcut. Centrally placed in a temporary wooden theater installed for a public anatomy lecture, we see Andreas Vesalius speaking, his left forefinger raised for emphasis, and his right hand holding open the abdomen of a female cadaver. This image is a visual manifesto for a new way of teaching anatomy that dramatizes both Vesalius's grasp of the theory of anatomy and his skill in the techniques of dissection.

He has drawn a large audience from all echelons of society: clerics, nobles, city and university officials, students, and passers-by. Vesalius's break with tradition is symbolized by his descent from the elevated chair in which professors usually lectured; he is explaining the anatomical structures as he personally performs the dissection. Assistants—the ostensores who used to show the structures and the menial sectores who used to do the cutting—have been demoted and now sit under the table quarreling about who will sharpen the knife.

Vesalius is shown on the same level as medical colleagues and three classically clad figures whose proximity may suggest that he was fully in touch with the rich medical heritage of ancient Greece and Rome. One of these figures to the right of the table turns away from an entreating figure with a goat and a dog (reminiscent perhaps of Galen's practice of animal dissection) and points to the example of Vesalius. Likewise, two classical figures to the left turn their backs on a rampaging monkey biting the hand of a spectator, a behavior that emphasizes the gap separating humans and animals, even primates, and undermines the assumption of resemblance on which Galen's anatomical method was based.

The centrally placed, articulated skeleton was both a visual aid that Vesalius recommended for teaching and a reminder that anatomical study should constantly begin with and refer back to underlying bone structure. Like another memento mori, the candle on the table, the skeleton also serves as a reminder of human mortality. The audience includes three spectators holding books, suggesting the comparison of established doctrine with an actual dissection, and pointing to the role that printing can play in spreading new anatomical knowledge. One much younger figure, who appears to be holding a sketchbook, may be Jan Stefan van Calcar, a Flemish student of Titian's who had previously collaborated with Vesalius, and who has been tentatively identified as the creator of this masterful woodcut.

This influential scene would set a pattern to be followed in future depictions of anatomy and surgery in other illustrated treatises of the sixteenth century, and in paintings from Rembrandt van Rijn's Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Tulp (1632) to Thomas Eakins's The Surgical Clinic of Professor Gross (1875) and his The Agnew Clinic (1889).

Colin Dickson
Washington College

Suggested Reading

Carlino, Andrea. Books of the body: Anatomical ritual and Renaissance learning. Translated by John Tedeschi and Anne C. Tedeschi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Cohen, I Bernhard. Revolution in Science. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985.

Cunningham, Andrew. The Anatomical Renaissance. Brookfield, VT: Scolar Press, 1997.

Dear, Peter. Revolutionizing the sciences: European knowledge and its ambitions, 1500-1700. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The printing press as an agent of change: Communications and cultural transformations in early-modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Lambert, Samuel, Willy Wiegand, and William M. Ivins. Three Vesalian Essays. New
York: Macmillan, 1952.

McLeod, I. K. "A historical enigma: The artist responsible for the illustrations of Andreas Vesalius's 'De humani corporis fabrica'." Pharos of Alpha Omega Honor Medical Society 59 (1996): 8-13.

Saunders, J. B. de C. M., and Charles D. O'Malley. The Illustrations from the works of Andreas Vesalius of Brussels. Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1950.

Sawday, Jonathan. The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture. London: Routledge, 1995.

Siraisi, Nancy G. "Vesalius and the reading of Galen's teleology." Renaissance Quarterly 50 (1997): 1-37.

Vesalius, Andreas. On the Fabric of the Human Body. Book I: The Bones and cartilages. Book II: The ligaments and Muscles. Translated by William Frank Richardson in collaboration with John Burd Carman. San Francisco: Norman, 1998-2000.