Quid me mihi detrahis? Who is it that tears me from myself? – Ovid, The Metamorphosis Book VI
I recently began an essay on the evolution of images in anatomy books between 1450 and 1800, and I thought I’d share some of my early research. All the images I’ve used are from the National Library of Medicine, which has an excellent historical anatomy exhibit. Clicking on the pictures below will take you to the appropriate section of the NLM website for more images, biographies, and bibliographies. (And a word of warning, some might find the illustrations graphic, disturbing, or not safe for work.) Part II will hopefully appear sometime next week.
- Books of the Body: Anatomical Ritual and Renaissance Learning by Andrea Carlino
- The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture by Jonathan Sawday
- The Art of Anatomy: Depicting the Body from the Renaissance to Today by Rifkin, Ackerman, and Folkenberg.
Although curiosity about the body has long been a feature of human culture, anatomical science stagnated during the Middle Ages, a time when the words of classical authorities were valued over discovery. Rather than working from observation or experimentation, medieval scholars compiled, rewrote, and annotated older medical works, particularly those of Galen. It wasn’t until the late Middle Ages and Renaissance that increasingly literate and intellectual segments of society, renewed interest in science and discovery, and advances in printing resulted in the production of new anatomical treatises that eclipsed the achievements of the past and led to the foundation of modern anatomy. But these new volumes were not purely scientific or didactic. Luxury texts intended for an erudite, upper-class audience beyond the medical profession, they mixed art, science, and religion to create dramatic meditations on the natures of flesh and soul and the meaning of the body’s short existence.
Fasciculus de medicina
The first printed anatomy book was published in Venice in 1492 by the Gregorio brothers. A Latin translation of a work by a little known German physician named Johannes de Ketham, it was planted firmly in the medieval medical tradition. The book, which included treatises on subjects such as bloodletting, urinoscopy, and dissection, became an important teaching text, but its sumptuous woodcuts were also geared toward an audience of wealthy intellectuals. A major success, it was republished in 1493 with new illustrations showing contemporary medical scenes including a dissection, and it appeared in twelve editions within a decade. Though produced by a workshop, the designs are good examples of the clean, classical style of Venetian Renaissance illustration. Below is the traditional zodiac man as well as a dissection scene, which portrays an anatomy lesson as performed in the late Middle Ages. The young lector reads from an anatomical text, most likely Galen, while the sector, an uneducated barber/surgeon, preforms the dissection, and the ostensor, a high ranking professor, translates the words of the lector and directs the sector. At this time dissection was not an act of observation and discovery, but was a tightly controlled public ritual intended to reinforce the authority of classical medical texts. The illustration indicates the importance of the text by the prominent placement of the lector relative to the other figures, including the higher ranking ostensor.
This book, published in 1522 and 1523 by the humanist physician Jacopo Berengario da Carpi, is credited as the first printed anatomy text based on direct observation of the body. Berengario was deeply skeptical of traditional anatomical practice, saying that a good anatomist ‘does not believe anything in his discipline simply because of the spoken or written word: what is required here is sight and touch.’ Though the woodcuts are artistically and anatomically crude, part of their importance lies in their reflection of Italian Renaissance culture. Berengario was an art collector, and many of the figures are based on rediscovered classical art, religious images, and important works by Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Berengario recognized the importance of anatomical knowledge for artists, and he recommended his book for their use as well as that of medical students. The half-flayed figure below is in the traditional pose of an Apollo with light rays. Other illustrations represent the redemptive potential of dissection, which was believed to help atone for the sins of the criminals whose bodies were commonly used for this purpose. Several images of partially draped female nudes indicate a tension between sexual modesty and the display of dissected reproductive organs.
De humani corporis fabrica
One of the most famous medical texts of all time, The Fabric of the Human Body (1543) by Andreas Vesalius, was the first truly modern anatomical book. Vesalius was a Flemish surgeon of the University of Padua who had been trained in the Galenic tradition. Based on his own experience with dissection he rejected Galen as the ultimate authority and argued that surgeons should make their own observations, and he corrected many Galenic mistakes, such as the multi-lobed liver, that had been passed from text to text through the Middle Ages. Vesalius and his collaborators were also some of the first people to grasp the full potential of the printed book, using the title page, illustrations, initials, and chapter/paragraph subdivisions to create a harmonious and practical work. Vesalius’s illustrations were most likely based on his own careful drawings, and he worked closely with the woodcut artist Jan Stefan van Kalkar, a member of Titian’s studio. This partnership resulted in extremely accurate and detailed work, better than anything that proceeded it. But these are not just sterile medical images—the cadavers display human emotions of sadness, despair, and mourning. The skeleton below ponders mortality in a memento mori which would reappear throughout western culture, including in Shakespeare. The second appears to pray, or to be bent in agony. Throughout the book dead trees and barren landscapes, representing death, are contrasted with churches and the promise of eternal life.
De dissectione partium corporis humani
Charles Estienne, a member of the famous printing family of Paris, began work on this book during the 1530s, hoping it would replace the Isagogae breves of Berengario. He had been a student in Paris at the same time as Vesalius, sharing the former’s interest in dissection and the belief that direct observation was more important than the words of authorities. Unfortunately, while Estienne’s book contributed some new discoveries to the science of anatomy, it was plagued by legal issues regarding the artwork and was not published until two years after De humani corporis fabrica. One of the interesting aspects of Estienne’s book is that it includes a number of woodcuts of nude women that were, according to Rifkin, originally intended as ‘genteel humanist erotica’, but were altered by partial dissection and the inclusion of anatomical information relating to reproductive anatomy. Included are Bathsheba being spied upon by David (below), as well as the goddesses Venus, Antiope, and Proserpina. A good example of the complex relationships between art, medicine, books, and sex during the early modern era.