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The Illustrations from the Works of Andreas Vesalius of Brussels
By J. B. deC. M. Saunders, Charles D. O'Malley
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1950 The World Publishing Company
All rights reserved.
The work of Andreas Vesalius of Brussels constitutes one of the greatest treasures of Western civilization and culture. His masterpiece, the De Humani Corporis Fabrica and its companion volume the Epitome, issued at Basel in 1543, established with startling suddenness the beginning of modern observational science and research. Their author has come to be ranked with Hippocrates, Galen, Harvey and Lister among the great physicians and discoverers in the history of medicine. However, his book is not only one of the most remarkable known to science, it is one of the most noble and magnificent volumes in the history of printing. In it, illustration, text and typography blend to achieve an unsurpassed work of creative art; the embodiment of the spirit of the Renaissance directed toward the future with new meaning.
The purpose of the present work is to make available to the general reader, the student of art, of science and of medicine, the illustrations from the works of Andreas Vesalius through the medium of which they may gain some insight into this achievement of science and art. In the dynamic and dramatic postures of the figures which emanated from the workshop of the master painter Titian, one may trace with something of the original freshness and enthusiasm man's discovery of his own bodily structure. In them, the student of the graphic arts will perceive the movement which freed art from conventional forms to re-approach nature, whence it could once more depart to explore other fields. Here, too, he will find the sixteenth-century woodcut at its finest, and here he will feel the power of the illustration employed for the advancement of knowledge.
To facilitate this purpose each of the illustrations has been briefly annotated. First there appears in italics Vesalius' own legend to the drawing followed by an explanatory note which in many instances, owing to the nature of the material, is perforce somewhat technical and therefore will be of greater interest to the physician or biologist than to the general reader or to the artist. However, it is hoped that despite the necessity of such information, the general reader will find enough in these notes to give him some understanding of the meaning of the drawing. Vesalius provided each of the illustrations with an elaborate index to the letters denoting the various structures exposed. Since the terminology employed is so archaic as to require, except for the expert in sixteenth-century medicine, interpretation of almost every term, which would greatly increase the bulk of this volume, it was thought wiser to omit the translation of the indices. However, this should present no difficulty to anyone with a knowledge of human anatomy since he will be able to identify easily the many structures, and attention has been drawn to those which might prove confusing. At this juncture the reader should perhaps be warned of the danger of judging Vesalius' knowledge or lack of knowledge by the illustrations alone. This has been responsible for innumerable erroneous conclusions in the Vesalian literature. While the drawings were being prepared, Vesalius himself was undergoing a rapid evolution and making new discoveries from day to day which required him to correct in the text earlier but erroneous opinions portrayed in the illustrations.
The illustrations reproduced in this volume are derived from the magnificent edition of the plates entitled the Icones Anatomicae of Andreas Vesalius and, for the most part, struck directly from the original wood blocks and published jointly by the New York Academy of Medicine and the Library of the University of Munich in 1934 under the editorship of Doctors Wiegand, Lambert and Archibald Malloch. The story of the re-discovery of the wood blocks of the Fabrica and Epitome is as extraordinary as any in the long history of bookmaking. Engraved in Venice, their peregrinations began with the long journey across the Alps to Basel, as recounted in Vesalius' letter to the printer Oporinus. Thereafter, they were used once again in the preparation of the second edition of 1555, slightly modified by cutting away the wood around some of the guide letters where they tended to be obscured by the shadows. It would seem that after Oporinus' death they passed into the hands of Jerome Froben's son and remained with this family until the third generation went out of the printing business in 1603. It is presumed that the blocks passed to Ludwig König, successor to the Frobens, and eventually they were purchased by Andreas Maschenbauer, a printer of Augsburg, who published, as the work of Titian, a selection of the plates for the use of artists and sculptors in 1706 and again in 1723. Once more they disappeared to be re-discovered, this time by the physician von Woltter. He, after having sent them in 1777 to the publisher Crusius of Leipzig, who decided that the expense of a new edition would be too great for him to undertake, entrusted them to the Bavarian anatomist and surgeon H. P. Leveling of Ingolstadt, who printed editions of the plates, financed by subscription, at Ingolstadt in 1781 and again in 1783. The blocks, now two hundred and fifty years old, were stored in Ingolstadt until that city was captured by the French in 1800 when they were evacuated to Landshut in Bavaria, to rest there for twenty-six years before continuing their journeyings. From Landshut they passed to the Library of the University of Munich where they gathered dust in a disused cupboard until they were recognized in the course of an inventory in 1893. In the meantime, the wood block of the re-engraved title page of the 1555 edition passed by some devious route into the hands of a collector in Antwerp and was subsequently presented to the Library of Louvain. Once more, in 1932, the wood blocks were unexpectedly found, stored in the Munich Library. Of the estimated 277 original blocks only fifty were missing, among which unfortunately was the portrait, and these, together with the plates of the Tabulae Sex and the single diagram from the Venesection Letter, were reproduced in facsimile to complete the Icones Anatomicae of the New York Academy of Medicine. But to this long odyssey a colophon must be written. The precious wood blocks were destroyed in the bombing of Munich during World War II.
The great achievement of Vesalius has led to strenuous efforts by historians to uncover and understand the forces responsible for the sudden emergence of the modern observational method of science in the midst of the renaissance cult of antiquity. For this reason every aspect of his life and personality has been examined with the utmost care. Despite all these efforts, many important questions go unanswered. Much of his life is an enigma, and the enigma extends to his works, notably to the illustrations. Around few other figures in the history of science has such an immense literature gathered. In order to orient the reader in the Vesalian problem a brief examination of his life and work must be made which has been based as far as possible on primary sources, but, since it is beyond the intention of this volume, the documentation has been omitted.
ANDREAS VESALIUS OF BRUSSELS (1514-64) BIRTH AND FAMILY ORIGINS
Andreas Vesalius, like so many who have achieved renown in the field of medicine, owed much to his heritage. The earliest existing records of the family show a long devotion to the cult of Aesculapius. Peter, his great-great-grandfather, was a physician of reputation who gathered a large and costly collection of medical treatises and wrote a commentary on the fourth Fen of Avicenna. Several of these valuable manuscripts descended to the young Vesalius and were the great joy of his student days. John, Peter's son, enrolled in the University of Louvain in 1429, that is, soon after the opening of that renowned institution, and eventually taught there until about the year 1446. He, too, was a physician who concentrated on "mathematics," i.e., astrology, and would seem to have been well in advance of his times since he addressed a letter to the pope, Eugenius IV (1431-1437), advocating reforms in the calendar which were not to be achieved until late in the following century. Later John was chosen physician to the city of Brussels, and evidence suggests that he was appointed adviser to the Duke of Burgundy. Everard, John's son and grandfather to our Vesalius, maintained this connection, being physician to Mary of Burgundy and, on her marriage to the Archduke and later Emperor Maximilian I, began a long tradition of Vesalian service to the Hapsburgs. Everard was the author of a commentary on the Ad Almansorem of Rhazes, which inspired young Andreas Vesalius' graduation thesis, and wrote, in addition, on the first four sections of the Aphorisms of Hippocrates. He was rewarded with the rank of chevalier but died comparatively young, around his forty-sixth year, sometime prior to 1485. Finally we come to Andreas, father of the great anatomist, who was the natural son of Everard and Marguerite Swinters. Long after his birth he received as a reward for faithful services papers of legitimacy dated October 1531. He had entered the service first of Margaret of Austria as an apothecary and then of her nephew the Emperor Charles V. It was to this Andreas Vesalius and his wife, Isabella Crabbe, that the celebrated anatomist, distinguished as Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, was born. According to a horoscope cast by Jerome Cardan, the Milanese physician, mathematician and epistolary friend of Vesalius, the birth occurred at a quarter to six on the morning of 31 December 1514, reckoned according to the Julian Calendar. The place was Brussels, the chief city of Brabant, where his father owned a house on the Rue de Manège—then the Rue d'Enfer, although the family had not always lived in Brussels. The name Wesel, or variations of that form, was of pure Brabantine origin and designates several localities, notably around Campine; but early records indicate that the family had been long domiciled at Nimwegen in the Duchy of Cleves where, as the result of marriage alliance, the family was also known as Witings or Wytincx. Certainly Vesalius himself regarded Nimwegen as his ancestral home.
Vesalius passed his earliest years in the city of his birth, in the home which was to be rebuilt in 1525 at the same time as that of his neighbor and relative John Martin, also an apothecary. Of this period of his life very little is known except that he was encouraged to pursue the family tradition by his mother, to whom he was devoted, and greatly stimulated by his father on those occasions of family reunion when the latter's presence was not required at court or on the ceaseless imperial journeys or campaigns. With such a heritage the family library was extensive, and Vesalius early acquired the habit of reading. Falloppius tells us that Vesalius was always to be found in the library studying the ancient authors. How powerful was this tradition is seen in the case of his younger brother Franciscus who, although destined for the study of law, turned to medicine in his pride for the achievements of his elder brother.
In 1528 after a preliminary education, unknown as to time or place, Andreas Vesalius entered the University of Louvain, pursuing his studies in the Pedagogium Castre where he received a thorough grounding in Latin, with possibly a smattering of Greek, and continued his acquaintance with the medieval writers on science which he had begun at home. He had already displayed an interest in anatomy and in later writings refers to dissections which he had performed at this time on small animals of all sorts, including "our weasels," a conceit pointing to the origin of his name and the animals adopted as the family arms in the form of three weasels courant.
Three years later in 1531, when Vesalius was about seventeen, he transferred to the more progressive Collegium Trilingue at Louvain, founded in 1517 under the influence of the new humanism by Jerome Busleiden (1470-1517). In accordance with humanistic conceptions, the purpose of this school was to ground young men in what were considered the three all-important keys to education and learning, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. With such keys the doors to universal knowledge would be opened, and learning would be reborn by the restoration of the dead past to new life. That Vesalius did not become a scholar in the sixteenth-century understanding of the term was due to his medical ambitions and a bent of mind early directed along the pathway of science. Latin he learned thoroughly in the best Ciceronian tradition, but his Greek was of a very lame variety, the result of his restlessness and desire to get on with his medical education. Of Hebrew he knew practically nothing. Yet the spirit of the school was permanently imbedded in Vesalius. All his writings indicate an intense interest in philology, Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic. Some years later, apparently recognizing his linguistic deficiencies, he undertook the study of Arabic with a Jewish tutor, Lazarus of Frigae, although his accomplishment appears to have been slight. The same influence is evident in his attitude towards his own accomplishments in the field of anatomy. He looked upon himself as a restorer so that "anatomy will soon be cultivated in our Academies as it was of old in Alexandria" and so was kin to Rabelais, Michelangelo, Vives, and the host in art, literature and science to whom the Renaissance was indeed a renaissance.
Although we know so little of Vesalius' education at this period, we do know through his own words that two of his fellow students were Gisbertus Carbo and Anthony Perrenot, later Bishop Granvelle and imperial chancellor. To the former, who became a physician in Louvain, he presented the first articulated skeleton which he had obtained under great difficulties by robbing the gibbet, and to the latter he owed a certain degree of favor at the imperial court.
It was probably in 1533 that Vesalius, now ready for a formal medical education, set out for Paris equipped with suggestions and possibly introductions from Nicolaus Florenas, an imperial physician and friend of his father, who had taken a great personal interest in the young man. Vesalius, in his dedication to the Venesection Letter of 1539, was to describe Florenas as almost a father to him, which would seem to have been more than fulsome sixteenth-century rhetoric since his own father was frequently absent in attendance upon Charles V, and Florenas may have acted as director of his studies and spiritual mentor. It is even possible that it was on advice of Florenas that Vesalius decided to go to Paris.
Although the University of Paris possessed a great name and great influence in northern Europe, it was nevertheless an extremely conservative institution. This conservatism extended to the medical school and placed the study of medicine at a considerable disadvantage in relation to the great progress which was being made, notably in the universities of Italy. In 1477 the medical school of Paris had obtained its own building in the Rue de la Boucherie, but no provision had been made for the teaching of anatomy by means of dissection, and although from 1493 onward occasional anatomies were conducted in the basement of the hospital Hôtel Dieu, these were carried out in the medieval manner amounting to little more than ceremonies. However, in 1526 the Medical Faculty made a successful appeal to the Paris Parlement for a greater supply of dissection material which resulted in more frequent anatomical demonstrations. However, even then they were comparatively infrequent. It is to be doubted that Vesalius witnessed more than three or four during his stay in Paris.
Nevertheless, a candidate for the bachelor's degree was formally required to display a knowledge of anatomy which he gained largely from textbooks and the study of disarticulated bones when he could obtain them. Prior to 1514 the texts were for the most part derived from the medieval Arabic tradition, that is, from the writings of Moslem physicians and their commentators or from translations of the works of classical authors necessarily corrupted by passage from Greek into Syriac, Syriac into Arabic and thence into obscure Latin. In that year a collection of Galen's works, translated directly from the Greek into Latin by Nicolò Leoniceno (1428-1524), was published in Paris and seized upon with enthusiasm. The new medical humanism had arrived in Paris, and thereafter the publication of such translations occurred in rapid succession. Physicians, seeing for the first time the works of Galen and Hippocrates stripped of their dross, believed that now they had captured the essence and spirit of the great classical authors and were at last about to enter a new Golden Age. As yet medicine had not developed a philosophy of progress but tended to look upon the present as inferior in knowledge and achievement to the past with the resultant enslavement to the literal word, and in particular to that of Galen. This is especially evident in the membership of the Medical Faculty at Paris among whom was Johann Guinther of Andernach (1487-1574), one of Vesalius' more important teachers. Guinther, who had previously taught Greek at Louvain, came to Paris in 1527 and established a considerable reputation for himself as an anatomist by translating Galen's work on anatomical procedure entitled De Anatomicis Administrationibus which was issued in 1531. Although nominally termed a professor of anatomy, his major qualifications were linguistic, and there is no evidence that he actually dissected. Indeed, his pupil Vesalius was to write somewhat cruelly of him later: "I would not mind having as many cuts inflicted on me as I have seen him make either on man or other brute (except at the banqueting table)." While other teachers of Vesalius at Paris were the philosophic Jean Fernel (1497-1558), Jean Vasse of Meaux (1486-1550), dean of the faculty, and one Oliverius of whom nothing is known, the most important was Jacques du Bois of Amiens, Latinized as Jacobus Sylvius (1478-1555).
Excerpted from The Illustrations from the Works of Andreas Vesalius of Brussels by J. B. deC. M. Saunders, Charles D. O'Malley. Copyright © 1950 The World Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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