Revisiting the Fabrica Frontispiece

Jeffrey M. Levine, MD, AGSF, author of today’s guest post, will present “Revisiting the Frontispiece: Vesalius’s Jewish Friend and the Impact of the Inquisition” with Michael Nevins, MD, at our October 18th festival, Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500.

Between the first edition in 1543 and the second edition in 1555, the frontispiece of Andreas Vesalius’ classic masterpiece, De humani corporis fabrica, was recut with many subtle variations in both style and content. I am thrilled to be presenting “Revisiting the Frontispiece: Vesalius’s Jewish Friend and the Impact of the Inquisition” at Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500 with my colleague and mentor, Dr. Michael Nevins. Together we will examine and compare the frontispieces and offer theories as to why differences appear. We propose, for example, that some changes to the second edition were in reaction to the Inquisition, which was revived by Pope Paul III.1

Today’s guest post introduces selected features of the frontispiece of the Fabrica’s first edition. This intricate and multilayered composition features the master Vesalius dissecting a young female corpse, her abdomen flayed open. They are surrounded by a multitude of spectators crowded into a three-tiered wooden scaffold built into a semicircular amphitheater of Corinthian columns. At top-center is the decorative escutcheon that bears the name of the book and the author. Above is the family coat-of-arms of Andreas Vesalius flanked by two putti, the chubby male children who were often a feature of Renaissance art, and two gargoyles. Below is the face of Jupiter, the Roman king of gods.

The frontispiece to the 1543 Fabrica in our collection.

The frontispiece to the 1543 Fabrica in our collection. Click to enlarge.

The frieze sitting atop the columns contains symbols including a bucranium, or ox skull with garlands hanging from its horns, which was the symbol of the University at Padua,2 and a winged lion representing the evangelist St. Mark, the symbol of neighboring Venice.3 The columns are flanked by two men, one naked with tense muscles and a worried look, the other relaxed and smartly dressed.

To the right of the skeleton bearing a risus sardonicas, a man in a truncated conical hat recoils as if in terror, squinting and raising his left hand in a defensive gesture. In his 1964 biography of Vesalius, Charles O’Malley identifies this figure as Vesalius’s Jewish friend, Lazaro de Fregeis, who assisted with the Hebrew nomenclature in the Fabrica.4 The only woman other than the corpse appears as a mysterious figure peeking between the columns. There are two Franciscan Monks among the spectators, neither exhibiting much interest in the dissection. Below right is a pickpocket caught in the act. On the opposite side, a leashed monkey screams in protest, and under the table two men fight over the dissecting tools.

There is much more to learn about the frontispiece of the first edition of the Fabrica, and even more when compared to the second edition. To find out more about the changes to the second edition frontispiece, and how they may have contained coded messages reflecting tensions of 16th-century Italian society, particularly in the context of the situation of European Jewry, come to our presentation at the New York Academy of Medicine’s Vesalius 500 celebration on October 18.


1. Historical overview of the Inquisition. 2001. Available at: Accessed September 23, 2014.

2. Padova Terme Euganee. University of Padua – Palazzo Bo. Available at: Accessed September 23, 2014.

3. Imboden D. Winged Lion of St. Mark. Durant Cheryl Imboden’s Venice Visit. Available at: Accessed September 23, 2014.

4. O’Malley C. Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, 1514-1564. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press; 1964.

2 thoughts on “Revisiting the Fabrica Frontispiece

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #16 | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Pingback: Vesalius 500: Art, Anatomy, and the Body | Books, Health and History

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