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Book of the Month

September 2002

De Humani Corporis Fabrica Librorum Epitome

Basel: 1543

Sp Coll Hunterian Ce. 1. 18

In 1543 Andreas Vesalius published his opus De Humani Corporis Fabrica Librorum Septem and later the same month the companion volume De Humani Corporis Fabrica Librorum Epitome. The September book of the month is the Epitome, a medical textbook that, along with the Fabrica, set a new benchmark for anatomical illustration. This copy is printed on vellum: according to Cushings' Bio-Bibliography of Andreas Vesalius only two other copies are known to have been printed on vellum, one kept in the British Library and one in the library at Louvain, sadly lost to fire in a bombing raid in August, 1914. The Epitome is without doubt one of the great contributions to the medical sciences, but it is a great deal more, being an exquisite piece of creative art with a perfect blend of format, typography and illustration.

Portrait of Vesalius on fol.6v opposite the beginning of the text of the Epitome. [Ce.1.18]

Andreas Vesalius was born in Brussels in 1513, or 1514 and came from a family of physicians. He received his education at Louvain, and studied medicine at Montpellier and Paris before returning to Louvain to teach anatomy. After spending some time in France (1533-1536) as an army surgeon to Charles V, Vesalius travelled to Italy to continue his studies, later becoming professor of anatomy at Padua; he also taught in Bologna and Pisa. In 1543, at the age of only twenty eight, he published his Fabrica and Epitome. After being called to the court of Charles V later in 1543, he was soon after occupying the post of army surgeon again. After returning to Italy, and following trips to Brussels and Basel, he spent some time in Madrid at the court of Philip II as his physician in ordinary. A pilgrimage to Jerusalem was to be Vesalius’ last journey. While on the island of Cyprus he received a call to Padua to occupy the chair of Fallopius. On the way he was shipwrecked, and died on the Isle of Zante on October 15, 1564.

The portrait of Vesalius opposite the beginning of the text shows us a confident young man, eyes fixed directly upon the observer. However, the scene containing the portrait is not fully realistic in the modern sense of the word. In spite of the fleshy appearance of the dissected arm that the anatomist is holding, the arm belongs to an unrealistically conceived body, a cadaver seemingly in a standing position. Actually rather than representing a real cadaver, the corpse seems primarily symbolic. The text lying on the table also seems symbolic; it is written in a code so complicated that historians have been unable to decipher whether it has meaning.

The Epitome summarised the whole of anatomy with few scholarly references, and it was probably less expensive than the Fabrica. It was based on illustration and included such popular devices as cutouts to be used for the construction of flap-anatomies. The imposing layout and the spectacular illustrations immediately impress anyone who opens the text; even the title-page woodcut is a masterly work of art. There can be no doubt that the woodcut ranks among the finest achievements of the art of the engraver in the sixteenth century. The line is clear and precise, the depth and perspective remarkable, the difficult cross-hatching in the shadows accomplished almost without blemish, and the whole executed with a skill and craftsmanship of the highest order.
In the centre of the scene stands Vesalius surrounded not only by his students and fellow physicians but also by the Rectors of the city and university, councillors and representatives of the nobility and church. The author himself is shown facing the observer, while his hands are unmistakably engaged in demonstration. Not only is he demonstrating from the cadaver, but he himself is the prosecutor. He signalizes the break with authority by descending from the chair, dispensing with the ostensors or demonstrators, and relegates the menials who formerly did the dissection to a position beneath the table where they are seen quarrelling amongst themselves. In this way the reader is prepared for the subject matter of the book, expecting a description of the human body that will be based on the author's observations. In the foreword Vesalius specifically mentions the use of the hands, which he says has been "completely neglected" by physicians since the time of the Romans. "Because physicians left the manual work to others and thus lost their practical acquaintance with anatomy", medicine itself had declined from its former splendour.

Title page woodcut for the Epitome of Vesalius, Basel, 1543. Attributed to Jan Stevenszoon van Calcar. [Ce.1.18]

In the illustration a temporary wooden structure has been erected to accommodate the spectators. The scene is presented in part realistically, in a manner comparable to a modern eyewitness report, but it is nevertheless still partially indebted to the traditional way of depicting a theatrical scene.

Detail from title page woodcut for the Epitome of Vesalius, Basel, 1543. Attributed to Jan Stevenszoon van Calcar. [Ce.1.18]

Many details were worked into the scene in accordance with the special wishes of Vesalius himself. For example, the nude figure clinging to the column on the left indicates the importance of surface anatomy as shown in the Epitome and draws attention to the functional aspects which Vesalius is to teach. 

Detail from title page woodcut for the Epitome of Vesalius, Basel, 1543. Attributed to Jan Stevenszoon van Calcar. [Ce.1.18]

Detail from title page woodcut for the Epitome of Vesalius, Basel, 1543. Attributed to Jan Stevenszoon van Calcar. [Ce.1.18]

Galen's reliance on animal anatomy is shown by the dog and chained monkey, long the symbol of medicine, and the centre of the woodcut is dominated by a skeleton posed in a manner fully described by Vesalius, who believed the skeleton to be the starting point for any serious anatomical work.

Detail from title page woodcut for the Epitome of Vesalius, Basel, 1543. Attributed to Jan Stevenszoon van Calcar. [Ce.1.18]

In the Epitome there are two of the finest illustrations to appear in any anatomical book. These form the centrepiece of the volume, and the starting point for the student. One is of a naked, modestly posed woman, an adaptation of a classical Greek sculpture into a mannerist image. Her hair is plaited and uncovered, her expression sad and intense. The left arm is outstretched, showing the larger "carrying angle" of women, while the right arm is placed over her sex in the Venus pudica position. The complementary figure is of a bearded, stocky and muscular Hercules-type man, similarly naked. His eyes are downcast in thought, his right arm is outstretched in the same manner as the woman’s and his other arm holds a skull against his left thigh. The text related to these two figures is well placed, the page-opening elegantly balanced.

Folio 9r from the Epitome of Vesalius, Basel, 1543. [Ce. 1.18]

Folio 10v from the Epitome of Vesalius, Basel, 1543. [Ce.1.18]

The Epitome was intended to act as an introduction for the novice in medicine. Vesalius viewed it as a pathway beside the highway of the much larger Fabrica. After discussing the muscles, Vesalius believed it advantageous for the student to combine the study of the viscera with the distribution of the vessels; a philosophy adhered to in the Epitome. Today we would call this the topographical approach. The Epitome is therefore divided into two parts, with the reader viewing the illustrations starting with the nude figures of the male and female at the middle of the series.
Once the surface of the body has been inspected and the relevant terminology for the different regions learned, the student now proceeds in one of two directions. In keeping with the topographical approach advocated by Vesalius, the student should first go backwards plate by plate to the beginning of the volume. Thus, leaf by leaf, the skin is removed to expose the first layer of muscles, followed in succession by progressively deeper layers until little more than the skeleton remains.

Folio 8r showing the first and second layers of muscles from the Epitome of Vesalius, Basel, 1543. [Ce.1.18

Folio 7r showing third layer of muscles with mandible divided from the Epitome of Vesalius, Basel, 1543. [Ce.1.18]

Folio 6r showing final stage in the order of dissection from the Epitome of Vesalius, Basel, 1543. [Ce.1.18]

Then, returning to the nude figures, he goes forwards in order to expose the nervous system, the cardiovascular system and the viscera.

Folio 11v showing the nervous system from the Epitome of Vesalius, Basel, 1543. [Ce.1.18]

Folio 12v showing cardiovascular system and female genitalia from the Epitome of Vesalius, Basel, 1543. [Ce.1.18]

Folio 13v showing cardiovascular system male genitalia from the Epitome of Vesalius, Basel, 1543. [Ce.1.18]

In the latter section several of the plates are repeated, and from these the student may construct by means of cut-outs two mannequins, male and female, which reveal the relative positions of the structures. Vesalius included instructions on how to prepare the mannequins in the descriptive text on these plates. It was also possible, presumably at an additional cost, to purchase copies which came with pre-assembled mannequins which had been coloured by hand. This technique of layered mannequins to suggest a three dimensional model of the body cavities had been employed prior to Vesalius - those of Vesalius, however, are among the earliest and are certainly the most accurate and elaborate.
From a modern medical textbook we demand an excellent layout, easily readable type, high quality paper, and a large number of illustrations that are clearly and correctly drawn and well reproduced. Moreover, we expect these illustrations to be gracefully integrated into the text by explanatory captions, keys and notes. Vesalius provides all this and something few medical authors since his time have been able to offer: illustrations that are not merely scientifically accurate but artistically superb. It is no wonder bibliophiles count the Epitome among the most beautiful books ever printed.

Other items of interest 

See the on-line Body Revealed exhibition for details of some of our other early anatomical holdings

De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem. By Andreas Vesalius. Basileæ: [per Ioannem Oporinum, 1543].  Sp Coll Bi6-a.5 

Andreae Vesalii Tabulae Anatomicae sex. [With facsimile title-page, portrait of Andrew Vesalius and notice of his life by Sir William Stirling Maxwell.]. Venetijs : Imprimebat B. Vitalis, 1538. Sp Coll Hunterian Az.1.10 

Les portraicts anatomiqves de tovtes les parties dv corps hvmain, gravez en taille dovce... Ensemble l'Abbrégé d'André Vesal, et l'explication d'iceux, accompagnée d'vne déclaration anatomique. Par Iaqves Grévin. Paris : chez André Wechel, 1569.  Sp Coll Hunterian Aw.1.1 

Radicis chynæ vsvs, [Andreas Vesalius]. Lvgdvni : sub Scuto Coloniensi, 1547. Sp Coll Hunterian Ch.4.11

Andreae Vessalii Chirvrgia magna in septem libros digesta... Prosperi Borgarvtii opera... explita, emendata... et... edita... Venetiis : ex officina Valgrisiana, 1569.  Sp Coll Hunterian Z.8.18-19 

Andreae Vesalii Epistola, docens uenam axillarem dextri cubiti in dolore laterali secandam: et melancholicum succum ex uenæ portæ ramis ad sedem pertinentibus, purgari. Basileæ : [in officina Roberti Winter], 1539.  Sp Coll Hunterian Cc.3.15 

Andreae Vesalii Epistola, rationem modumque propinandi radicis chymæ [sic] decocti... pertractans: et praeter alia qvaedam, Epistolæ cuiusdam ad Iacobum Syluium... [Et Regimento per pigliar l'acqva de la radice de chyna. - Edidit Franciscus Vesalius.]. Basileæ : [ex officina Johannis Oporini, 1546]. Sp Coll Hunterian Eh.1.5 

A collection of 54 drawings from the Fabrica of Vesalius. [Basel?], 16th century. With some manuscript text. Title-page may be a preparatory study for the printed title-page of Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (Basel, 1543). Sp Coll Hunterian Av.1.14


The following books have been very helpful in compiling this article:

History of Medical Illustration: from Antiquity to A.D. 1600. By Robert Herrlinger. Uitgeverij: Holland, 1970. Medicine qA27 1970-H

The Quick and the Dead: Artists and Anatomy. Edited by Deanna Petherbridge. [S.l.] : National Touring Exhibitions, c1997. Fine Arts A7570 1997-P 

The illustrations from the works of Andreas Vesalius of Brussels : with annotations and translations, a discussion of the plates and their background, authorship and influence, and a biographical sketch of Vesalius. By J.B. de C.M. Saunders and Charles D. O'Malley. New York : Dover Publications Inc., 1973. Anatomy qA13 1950-V 

The ingenious machine of nature : four centuries of art and anatomy. text by Mimi Cazort, Monique Kornell, K.B. Roberts. Ottawa : National Gallery of Canada, 1996.  Anatomy qA11 1996-C 

History and bibliography of anatomic illustration. By Ludwig Choulant. New York : Hafner, 1962.  Anatomy Bibliog A13 1962-C 

The fabric of the body : European traditions of anatomical illustration. By K.B. Roberts and J.D.W. Tomlinson. Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1992.  Anatomy qA11 1992-R

A bio-bibliography of Andreas Vesalius. By Harvey Cushing. New York : Schuman's, 1943. Anatomy Bibliog A12.V3 1943-C

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Sonny Maley September 2002