De humani corporis fabrica libri septem / Andreae Vesalii. (Basel, 1555) Galter Health Sciences Library, Special Collections, Northwestern University, Chicago.
by Andreas Vesalius (Flemish, 1514—1564)
About the Book:
Andreas Vesalius (1514—1564) was a Belgian–born physician who became a celebrated teacher of surgery and anatomy at the University of Padua. In 1543 he published De humani corporis fabrica, an illustrated atlas of the human body. In many senses, this book inaugurated modern anatomy and was instantly deemed a classic (Vesalius published a second, revised edition in 1555). Vesalius challenged the precepts of Galen (ca. 129—199), the Hellenistic physician whose writings formed the basis of medieval medicine. Medieval doctors learned anatomy by listening to a lector read Galenic texts aloud while a barber/surgeon demonstrated on a cadaver. In contrast, Vesalius advocated a radical turn toward what we would now call “empiricism.” That is, he insisted that true knowledge of human physiology could come only from direct investigations of the body. For this reason he performed his own dissections and encouraged his students to do the same. Vesalius’s belief in the powers of perception also extended to pictures. He thought that detailed engravings could both record and disseminate the anatomist’s observations. De humani corporis fabrica is filled with elegant, naturalistic representations of the human body in various stages of dissection. Overlaid with allegorical references, these pictures show strangely animated, anatomized muscle figures and skeletons posed in lush landscapes. Vesalius’s book established the methods and expectations of a new science, but it also indelibly associated this science with highly naturalistic and often quite beautiful images executed in the Italian Renaissance style.