First published by Joannis Oporini in 1543, Sixteenth century Flemish anatomist and physician Andreas Vesalius’ On the Fabric of the Human Body remains the most important and influential book in the study of human anatomy and “one of the most beautiful scientific books ever printed”(Grolier).

Woodcut anatomical illustration of Andreas Vesalius' De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body)

Woodcut anatomical illustration of Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body)

Vesalius studied medicine at the University of Paris and received his doctorate in medicine from the University of Padua in 1537. The University of Padua was home to the most prestigious medical school in Europe at the time yet based its curriculum primarily on ancient and erroneous understandings of the human body, still holding to the anatomy of ancient Greek physician and surgeon Galen.

Sixteenth century Flemish anatomist and physician Andreas Vesalius

Sixteenth century Flemish anatomist and physician Andreas Vesalius

On the day of his graduation, Vesalius was immediately offered the chair of surgery and anatomy at Padua. There, he produced his monumental anatomical study, De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), a collection of anatomically illustrated books based on his Paduan lectures, during which he deviated from common practice by dissecting a corpse as a part of his teaching lecture.

Woodcut title page with Vesalius performing a dissection; found in the first edition of De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem

Woodcut title page with Vesalius performing a dissection; found in the first edition of De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem

Dissections had previously been performed by a barber surgeon under the direction of a doctor of medicine. Shortly after his first lectures, a judge of the Paduan criminal court made available to Vesalius the bodies of executed criminals, which provided him with sufficient specimens to produce, at the age of twenty-nine, his monumental anatomical study.

One of 21 full page woodcut anatomical illustrations found in the first edition of De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem

The importance of the Fabrica in the history of medicine can scarcely be exaggerated. Vesalius revolutionized the study of medicine and practice of surgery with his insistence that anatomical knowledge must be derived from firsthand dissection and study of the human anatomical structures.

Insisting on empirical observation, the Fabrica “undermined the widespread reverence for authority in science and prepared the way for independent observation in anatomy and clinical medicine” (Garrison-Morton).Throughout the books, the remarkably accurate text is coupled with woodcut anatomical illustrations of artistic and technical brilliance in a comprehensive study of bones, muscles, blood vessels, nerves, abdominal viscera, thoracic organs and the brain.

“Galen was not merely improved upon: he was superseded; and the history of anatomy is divided into two periods, pre-Vesalian and post-Vesalian” (PMM). The unprecedented detail of the illustrations would not have been possible without the many artistic developments in the fine arts that had been made during the Italian Renaissance, particularly in literal visual representation and the technical development of printing with detailed woodcut engravings.

Rare edition of the Epitome of Vesalius, first published in 1543 as an abbreviated dissection room manual to accompany his masterpiece De Humani Corporis Fabrica

Rare edition of the Epitome of Vesalius, first published in 1543 as an abbreviated dissection room manual to accompany his masterpiece De Humani Corporis Fabrica

Published in 1543 as an abbreviated dissection room manual to accompany De Humani Corporis Fabrica, Anatomia in Quat Tota Humani Corporis Fabrica. (Anatomy in Total of the Fabric of the Human Body) was printed by Joannes Jasssonius in Amsterdam in 1617 with engravings taken directly from Flemish engraver Thomas Geminus’ first copy of 1545, Compendiosa Toitus Anatomie Delineato Aere Exarata.

One of nine full-page anatomically illustrated plates found in Anatomia in Quat Tota Humani Corporis Fabrica. (Anatomy in Total of the Fabric of the Human Body).

One of nine full-page anatomically illustrated plates found in Anatomia in Quat Tota Humani Corporis Fabrica. (Anatomy in Total of the Fabric of the Human Body).

Geminus was active throughout the latter 16th century in London and best known for his 1545 work Compendiosa totius anatomie delineatio, aere exarata (A complete delineation of the entire anatomy engraved on copper). Printed by John Herford the work consisted of 41 unnumbered engraved sheets all copied directly from Andreas Vesalius’ Epitome, published in 1543 as an abbreviated dissection room manual to accompany the latter’s masterpiece De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body).

Anatomia in quat tota humani corporis fabrica.

In his copperplate engraved copies, Geminus removed all the details he regarded as superfluous, most notably the background landscapes which informed Vesalius’s images. Born in 1588 in Arnhem, Netherlands and the son of bookseller and publisher Jan Janszoon the Elder, Dutch cartographer and publisher Johannes Janssonius produced and published several important maps and volumes throughout the early 17th century including the Hondius Atlas. His 1617 work was printed as a direct copy of the Gemini plates with credit given to Vesalius as the book’s author as was common in that era.

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