By Anne Garner, Curator, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health
The surgeon Walther Hermann Ryff worked in Strasbourg in the early 16th century. A prolific author, he wrote as many as 65 works on diverse subjects, including architecture, poisons, cookbooks, herbal remedies, obstetrics and mathematics.1 The author’s best known work, Des aller furtrefflichsten, hoechsten und adelichsten Gschoepffs aller Creaturen, was published in Strasbourg in 1541, just two years before the publication of Vesalius’ ground-breaking Fabrica.
The text compiles Ryff’s lectures in anatomy and physiology and 42 beautifully hand-colored woodcuts, compiled from a number of Renaissance sources. These images, mostly of bodies or partially dissected bodies, offer what scholar Alexander Marr describes as an immediate “rhetoric of authenticity.”2 Depicted in the counterfeit style, a type of representation common in the 16th century in Northern Europe, the illustrations in this book would have implied first-hand knowledge and discovery. The captions for plates produced in this style used the word “counterfeit” (above, contrafactur) to assert their accuracy as true representations. In this way, Ryff’s book positioned itself as a credible description of anatomy (though its illustrations were far from anatomically precise).
Little is known about Ryff’s training. He seems to have studied pharmacy in Basel, and absorbed much of his considerable medical knowledge by travelling through Europe. He was a successful author, frequently sought after by publishers. Among his peer group of writers, however, he would not have won any popularity contests. To the Swiss scientist Albrecht von Haller, he was a “compiler and polygraph of dubious morals,” and to Vesalius, simply, “the Strasbourg plagiarist.” Leonard Fuchs, the great botanist, whose work was reprinted in Ryff’s name twice, called him an “extremely outrageous, reckless, fraudulent writer.”3 The grounds for their complaints are easily recognizable by examining this volume, which lifts images from Vesalius’s Tabulae Sex (1538), from Eucharius Rösslin’s Der Rosengarten (1513), and from the anatomies of Johannes Dryander (1536), Jacapo Berengario da Carpi (1522), and Lorenz Fries (1518).
Ryff’s defenders have argued that what today would be regarded as blatant plagiarism was more in keeping with Enlightenment practices of recycling intellectual property. Even so, his appropriations seem to have gone too far in the minds of his peers. In some cases, he modified the images, improving them. The Fries figures were repositioned, and seated on a bench. The Vesalian plates showing the arteries and veins, now beautifully hand-colored, were superimposed on seated outlines of figures, which clarified the position of the vessels in the body.
Vesalius’ skeletons fared less well in Ryff’s possession. These were copied directly onto the wood-cut, so that the lettering and the skeletons themselves appear in reverse. The skeletons are depicted with an inadequate number of vertebrate and ribs, and are shown in inferior proportions.
Ryff directed his 1541 book at the ‘gemeine,’ or common man; it’s composition in vernacular German instead of Latin ensured it would have a wider readership. In this way, it would have been indispensable to new readers as a compilation of Renaissance knowledge about the body.
The book also offers some tantalizing evidence about early printing history. The wood-blocks for this edition were reused for a set of broadsides, issued in both German and Latin editions the same year. They then went to a Parisian printer for new editions of Ryff’s work and for a popular work on surgery.4 The reappearance of the Ryff woodcuts illustrates the practice of passing woodblocks from publisher to publisher, and shows how work published in one city continued to be published and disseminated in others.
1. Di Matteo, Berardo. “Art and Science in the Renaissance: The Case of Walther Hermann Ryff.” Clinical Orthopeadics and Related Research 472: 1689-1696. 2014 and Russell, K.F. Walter Hermann Ryff and His Anatomy.” The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery. v.22 no. 1. 1952. pp. 66-69.
2. Marr, Alexander. “Walther Ryff, Plagiarism and Imitation in Sixteenth-Century Germany.” Print Quarterly, 31, 2014. pp 131-143.
3. Roberts, K.B. and J.D.W. Tomlinson. The Fabric of the Body. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992; Marr, Alexander. “Walther Ryff, Plagiarism and Imitation in Sixteenth-Century Germany.” Print Quarterly, 31, 2014. pp 131-143; Di Matteo, Berardo. “Art and Science in the Renaissance: The Case of Walther Hermann Ryff.” Clinical Orthopeadics and Related Research 472: 1691.
4. K.B. Roberts and J.D.W. Tomlinson. The Fabric of the Body. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.