16th Century Anatomy and Pornography? De dissectione partium corporis humani libri tres, Charles Estienne, 1545; Guest Post by Morbid Anatomy


The first image above and those in the gallery below are illustrations from De dissectione partium corporis humani libri tres [Three Books on the Dissection of the Parts of the Human Body], published by Charles Estienne in Paris in 1545. Although this book came out 2 years after Andreas Vesalius’ landmark Fabrica, Charles Estienne’s Dissection was actually completed in 1539, so it is considered a work of pre-Vesalian anatomy.

Not only are these illustrations delightfully surreal, they also have a very surprising back story, creating an unlikely link between pornography and anatomy! This is revealed in the similarity of pose between the first image, a woodcut from Estienne’s work, and the second, a slightly earlier erotic engraving.

As explained on the Christie’s auction site:

The anatomical woodcuts in De Dissectione have attracted much critical attention due to their wide variation in imagistic quality, the oddly disturbing postures of the figures in Books 2 and 3, the obvious insertion in many blocks (again, in Books 2 and 3) of separately cut pieces for the dissected portions of the anatomy, and the uncertainty surrounding the sources of the images. The presence of inserts in main blocks would suggest that these blocks were originally intended for another purpose, and in fact a link has been established between the gynecological figures in Book 3, with their frankly erotic poses, and the series of prints entitled Gli amori degli dei [The Loves of the Gods], engraved by Gian Giacomo Caraglio after drawings by Perino del Vaga and Rosso Fiorentino.

A possible explanation of this interesting connection between pornography and anatomy is that the engraver of the female nude woodcuts did not have access to a model, and for the sake of expediency copied the general outlines of the female nudes from “The Loves of the Gods,” eliminating the male figures from the erotic illustrations. Another wood engraver, perhaps [Etienne de la] Rivière, would then have prepared the anatomical insert blocks showing the internal organs.

Still another explanation might have been that in an era in which there was little graphic erotica available the author and the publishers deliberately exploited the erotic undercurrents of this anatomical work as a way of expanding the market beyond medical students. Perhaps because of the erotic undertones the book sold unusually well for a dissection manual and anatomical textbook, causing the publishers to issue an edition in French only one year later, in 1546.

All images except the second are from De dissectione partium corporis humani libri tres, using the National Library of Medicine’s fantastic online resource Historical Anatomies on the Web; you can see all the images from Estienne’s book by clicking here.

The second image is by Jacopo Caraglio (engraver), after Rosso Fiorentino (artist): “Pluto and Proserpina,” 1527, from the series, The Loves of the Gods. It was exhibited in “‘An Earthly Paradise’: The Art of Living at the French Renaissance Court,” at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, January 16 – April 18, 2010, and is found on the Cornell University website.

This post was written by Joanna Ebenstein of the Morbid Anatomy blog, library and event series; click here to find out more.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s