'Humani Corporis' by Vesalius

The first anatomy lesson

Het lijk van een gehangene dat is gebruikt voor anatomisch onderzoek

In order to write De humani corporis fabrica. Libri septem, or The seven books about the build of the human body, the Flemish physician Andries van Wesel carried out dissections of human bodies himself. This was unprecedented in his day and age. In this voluminous book counting over 600 pages, published in 1543, the human body is shown in the smallest detail. The book is regarded as the first anatomical standard work for modern medicine.

Woodcut as printing plate

In the book extensive descriptions alternate with accurately illustrated body parts. Skeletons and cadavers are depicted against a backdrop of charming, Italian-style landscapes. The book contains 25 full-page illustrations and numerous smaller illustrations, showing every human organ.

All illustrations are prints from woodcuts. It is likely that the woodworkers were present when Vesalius carried out the dissection of the bodies. The woodcuts were designed in Padua under supervision of the author and next sent to Basel where printer Johannes Oporinus printed them in empty spots in the book. The text of the book was first typeset and then printed. The places in the book where the illustrations were to be put, were left empty. Next the cut-out illustrations on the woodblocks were rubbed with ink and printed on the paper. Besides Vesalius himself and Jan Steven van Calcar, who belonged to the school of Titiaan, several other anonymous artists worked on the designs.

Controversial views

Detail van pagina i uit ‘De humani corporis’ van Andreas Vesalius (1543) waarin putti vivisectie uitvoeren op een varken.

Many of Vesalius' findings clashed with the traditional medical school, based on the Late Antique theories by Claudius Galenus (130-ca 201). This Greek physician had probably never seen the insides of a human body. Both in medical and theological circles, Vesalius' book caused heated debate. Vesalius was accused of vivisection and blasphemy. To escape the inquisition, he ceased his anatomy lessons at the University of Padua where he was a professor. He then became the court physician of Charles the Fifth and Philip the Second whom he followed to Madrid.

Unprecedented popularity

Despite the resistance the work caused with followers of the traditional medical school, Vesalius' work received immediate popularity. This remained the case far into the 18th century, judging by the 1725 reprint, edited by Herman Boerhaave and Bernard Albinus.

Stripped off version

For the less wealthy the first abridged edition of De humani corporis fabrica was published at Oporinus in 1543, in which a part of the same woodblocks were used to make prints. This Epitome appeared in fourteen separate broadsheets, so the medical student or the (future) artist could hang them on the wall, making it easier to study the human anatomy.

The sheets could also be cut out and glued to cardboard pieces. By putting one on top of the other, it was possible to practise with the several layers and organs of the human body.

Utrecht University Library owns no less than two copies of this extremely rare Epitome. One copy (MAG: AC 33 (Rariora)) is even illuminated, which makes it even more exclusive. The other copy (MAG: M fol 92 Lk (Rariora)) is missing one and a half plates. Both copies are bound in a modern binding of marbled paper on cardboard covers. Apart from the colouring, the two documents differ slightly in the manner of quire signatures and hence the order of the plates. For instance, the sheet with quire signature 'M' in M fol 92 is bound in a different place in AC 33, namely at position 'O'. Here, the original 'M' has been pasted over with a piece of paper and an 'O' added next to it in manuscript. On the leaf titled Figurae ad tabvlam aptandam paratae, illi agglvtinandam, a signature 'M' was then added by hand. This leaf is therefore located at that position in the work. This is therefore at least a variant of the original Epitome and possibly a different edition.

Between 1608 and 1670, De humani corporis fabrica and the uncoloured copy of the Epitome were purchased by or donated to the library. The coloured version must have been acquired by the library around 1825. Worldwide, only two other copies of the Epitome are currently known with any form of contemporary illumination.

Detail van pagina 18 uit ‘De humani corporis’ van Andreas Vesalius (1543) met verschillende soorten schedels uit, topstuk uit de Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht

About Vesalius

From an early age, Vesalius (born in Brussels, 1515 - died on Zakynthos in 1564) collected bones on the Brussels gallows hill and took them home for study. In later life he is said to have wandered around graveyards in Paris looking for bodies and he was supposedly involved in a grave theft in Leuven. It is not clear if there is any truth in these stories, but they keep turning back in several sources. Andreas Vesalius' father was court pharmacist of Maximilan of Austria and Charles the Fifth. Vesalius was a student of anatomy in Leuven, Montpellier and Paris. He was 28 years of age when De humani corporis fabrica. Libri septem was published.


Loes Kuiper-Brussen, 2011 (edited version, June 2020)

Detail uit Humani Corporis van Vesalius, topstuk uit Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht