13. An Anatomical Atlas

By Fiona Knight (@fionalillian_)

Upon first glance, these decorated woodcut initials may appear quite charming, featuring little working cherubs. But upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that they’re engaging in something a bit more macabre – bloodletting, the assemblage of a skeleton, the transportation of a corpse and the dissection of one. This is because these initials are from Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica – an anatomical atlas from 1555 which, some argued, revolutionised the practice of dissection and the study of anatomy itself.[1] Moving away from the Galenic tradition, it depicts only human anatomy, a departure from previous animal-based generalisations.[2] The Fabrica was a bold gambit, looking to establish itself as a foundational manual – this itself also broke away from the tradition of medical writing as commentary on the established canon.[3]

This bold gambit was also a successful one – the text, comprised of over seven hundred pages and two hundred illustrations, was impressive enough to earn Vesalius a position in the Hapsburg court. Charles V himself wrote that it was ‘without question the greatest of all books which have been written about anatomy… and celebrated for its illustrations.’[4] The volume never lose this air of prestige, and remains, to this day, a lavish symbol of status for physicians who own it.  

[1] One of the most notable intellectual successors of Vesalius is William Harvey, who in the seventeenth century, authored De Motu Cordis, and was the first to understand the heart’s role in the circulatory system.

[2] Nancy G. Siraisi, ‘Vesalius and Human Diversity in De humani corporis fabrica,’ Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (1994), p. 63.

[3] Siraisi, p. 64.

[4] Dániel Margócsy, Mark Somos, Stephen N. Joffe, The Fabrica of Andreas Vesalius: A Worldwide Descriptive Census, Ownership, and Annotations of the 1543 and 1555 Editions (2018), p. 1.

Image credit: De humani corporis fabrica, Vesalius, 1555. Licensed under a Public Domain Mark and available at https://wellcomecollection.org/works/wsdt4jgs/items.

1 thought on “13. An Anatomical Atlas

  1. what do the others depict? Is that trepanning in the last one?

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