Plate 14 from Nova Reperta
by Johannes Stradanus

Affinities of Stones and Bones


The painter and architect Sebastiano Serlio and the physician and anatomist Andreas Vesalius both lived and worked in the area of Venice and nearby Padua in the 1530s. Both were associated with the circle of the Venetian painter Titian (a group that included learned humanists and artisans), and both made radically innovative use of visual images in their respective disciplines of architecture and anatomy. A comparison of two of their images, one of stones, the other of bones, reveals many similarities.

The son of a leather worker, Serlio trained as a painter, and began studying and measuring ancient ruins during a stay in Rome. He worked there (perhaps in the Vatican workshops) in the circle of the architect Bramante. By 1527, he had moved to Venice where he was associated with the poet and humanist Pietro Aretino (with whom he became good friends), the painter Titian, and the architect Jacopo Sansovino. In Venice, he devoted himself to creating his illustrated treatise, On Architecture, which he published in installments. The first installment, on the architectural orders, was published in 1537. Serlio's books were immensely popular among practicing masons and architects, as well as among humanists and scholars. Serlio illustrated various elements of building structures. Click Here for a Larger ViewFor example, in this illustration, he showed parts of various buildings that he had drawn from observation: detail A, depicting a podium, base and capital, are to be found in the Forum Borarium in Rome; detail R is found outside Rome on a bridge over the Tiber, and detail V is found above a triumphal arch in Verona. With Serlio's book in hand, the practicing architect did not actually need to observe the buildings and architectural elements to discern their workings, but could instead copy them from the book and incorporate them into buildings as he saw fit.

The illustration from Vesalius's De Humani Corporis demonstrates a similar practicality of purpose. Vesalius assembled bones from different parts of the body. Click Here for a Larger ImageHe also labeled them with letters that allow the reader to learn the technical term for the part. The shading and style of the bones are quite similar to the same elements in Serlio's architectural parts. In fact, it is very likely that Vesalius saw Serlio's book while he was working on his anatomical treatise. Vesalius used illustrations as a way of narrowing the gap between university medical learning and the artisanal practice of the surgeon and the apothecary, restoring, in his view, the ancient splendor of medicine. Vesalius believed that everyone should dissect in order to learn anatomy. However, if they were unable, or did not have the stomach for it, they could learn anatomy by studying his treatise instead. In a remarkable defense of virtual witnessing, Vesalius told his readers that "pictures of all the parts are incorporated into the text of the discourse, so as virtually to set a dissected body before the eyes of students of the work of Nature" (Vesalius, On the Fabric of the Human Body, trans. Hart and Hicks, "To King Charles V," xlvii-xlix). Like Serlio's book on architecture, Vesalius's book on human anatomy ironically spared the practitioner the necessity of looking at the real thing. The student of anatomy could be a "virtual witness" because of the closeness of a visual representation to the structure itself.

Pamela O. Long
Washington, DC

Suggested Reading

Dismoor, William Bell. "The Literary Remains of Sebastiano Serlio." Art Bulletin 24 (March 1942): 55-91.

Kemp, Martin. "Temples of the body and temples of the cosmos: vision and visualization in the Vesalian and Copernican revolutions." In Picturing Knowledge: Historical and philosophical problems concerning the use of art in science, edited by Brian S. Baigrie, 40-85. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966.

Long, Pamela O. "Objects of Art/Objects of Nature: Visual Representation and the Representation of Nature." In Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe, edited by Pamela H. Smith and Paula Findlen, 63-82. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Long, Pamela O. Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Payne, Alina A. The Architectural Treatise in the Italian Renaissance: Architectural Invention, Ornament, and Literary Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Serlio, Sebastiano. On Architecture. Vol. 1, bk. 1-5, 'Tutte L'opere d'architettura et prospetiva, translated by Vaughan Hart and Peter Hicks. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Vesalius, Andreas. On the Fabric of the Human Body: A Translation of "De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem. Book 1: The Bones and Cartilages and Book 2: The Ligaments and Muscles. San Francisco: Norman, 1998-1999.