Global Celebrations of Vesalius’s 500th Birthday

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

From the frontispiece of Vesalius’ Fabrica.

Not in New York? Plan a trip and attend our “Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500” Festival on October 18! You can read our guest curator Riva Lehrer’s thoughts on the Festival here, and get a sneak peak of a virtual dissection demonstration by Kriota Willberg; and Brandy Schillace on Naissance Macabre; as well as more information about Vesalius and his Fabrica. Keep an eye out for more Vesalius 500 guest posts to come.

But, much as we’d like to see you here on October 18, you don’t have to be in New York to celebrate Vesalius’ 500th birthday.

We always welcome visitors to make an appointment to visit our rare book reading room and examine our copies of the Fabrica and its companion volume, the Epitome (in addition to the rest of our collection). Those elsewhere can find beautiful colored digital versions of the Fabrica from the University of Basel Library and the Epitome at University of Cambridge Library’s digital library. The publishers of the new English language edition of the Fabrica also have some wonderful material online.

In addition, there are multiple birthday celebrations for Vesalius across the globe this year. Travelers can visit Leuven for the Unravelling the Body. The Theatre of Anatomy at the Leuven Museum, or the international conference Towards the Authority of Vesalius: Representations of the Human Body in Antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Dec 3–5); join the Vesalius Continuum Conference on Zakynthos, the Ionian Island on which Vesalius died (Sept 4–8 ); visit Down to the Bones: Celebrating 500 Years of Innovation (Jul 11–Oct 9) at the University of Utah libraries; see Discovering the Human Body at Anatomical Museum in Basel, as well as the only existing skeleton known to have been dissected by Vesalius (Sept 12–Mar 2015) and explore Vesalius and His Worlds: Medical Illustration during the Renaissance at the Huntington library (Dec 12–13). Vesalius was born on Dec 31, 1514; if the events of 2014 were not enough, keep an eye out for the St. Louis meeting celebrating Vesalius in 2015 (Feb 26-28). (Apologies to anyone whose event we’ve missed! The Karger Fabrica site has a great, and constantly updated list of Vesalius 500 events.)

The Fabrica of Andreas Vesalius: Object of the Month

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

This year we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the birth of Andreas Vesalius with our fall festival, “Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500” on October 18. So much has been written on the Fabrica and its importance that it can be difficult to know where to begin. Why do Vesalius and his work remain so important to contemporary scholarship and anatomical study? The answer lies in his first and most famous book, De humani corporis fabrica. The title is translated as On the Fabric of the Human Body, although the “fabrica” in the original title can be best understood in terms of “craft”, “workings,” or “fabrication.”1 In other words, in this book Vesalius is interested in the functions of the body as a living system. Seven “books,” or sections, lay out the different systems and functions of the body, beginning with bones and ligaments and ending with the brain and sensory organs.

The frontispiece to the 1543 Fabrica in our collection.

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

As the frontispiece makes clear, Vesalius wanted the Fabrica to demonstrate the importance of reviving hands-on anatomy as central to medical knowledge and practice. The Fabrica was a landmark publication, representing a turning point in the European understanding of the body and a new level of beauty and accuracy in its depiction in anatomical texts. At the time of its publication in 1543, Vesalius was a professor at the University of Padua, one of Europe’s best known medical schools. Only 28, Vesalius came from a long line of physicians. Like many of his forebears, he subsequently entered the service of the Imperial Court of Charles V, to whom he dedicated the Fabrica. He worked closely with his printers, wood carvers, and artists to ensure the accuracy and beauty of the over 300 woodblock images in the book.2 The Fabrica was exceptional in terms of both production and content, and its iconography, principles, and pedagogical approach were rapidly incorporated into medical thinking and teaching.

While the Fabrica is now remembered as the point at which a new, “modern” emphasis on direct observation and experimentation replaced deference to ancient authorities, Vesalius was careful to ensure that his erudition in the classical tradition was on display. Quotations of Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew texts point both to his determination to show the breadth of his knowledge and to the expertise of his typesetters. Vesalius used such authorities to place himself in an established tradition, even as he questioned aspects of accepted Galenic thought.

The frontispiece to the 1555 Fabrica in our collection. Click to enlarge.

The frontispiece to the 1555 Fabrica in our collection. Click to enlarge.

Along with his systematic exploration of all aspects of human anatomy, Vesalius’s demonstration that authorities such as Galen had made errors in their claims about human anatomy (in part due to reliance on animal dissection) was one reason the book rapidly assumed such extraordinary significance (although not universal acceptance). Despite its detractors, the Fabrica had an immediate impact; even with Vesalius’ best efforts, it was plagiarized and copied throughout Europe.3

Covers of the two Fabricas in our collection. The 1543 volume, left, has alum-tawed pigskin over wooden boards with elaborate decorative tooling and stamped designs and two brass fore-edge clasps. The 1555 edition, right, is bound in a contemporary parchment binding over stiff pasteboards with a single panel stamp. Click to enlarge.

Covers of two Fabricas in our collection. The 1543 volume, left, has alum-tawed pigskin over wooden boards with elaborate decorative tooling and stamped designs and two brass fore-edge clasps. The 1555 edition, right, is bound in a contemporary parchment binding over stiff pasteboards with a single panel stamp. Click to enlarge.

We are in the enviable position of owning multiple copies of the Fabrica as well as its companion piece the Epitome, a briefer volume designed for students with enlarged illustrations to aid the identification of individual features. In addition, we also hold multiple copies of the Icones Anatomicae, an extraordinary 20th-century artifact created in 1934 by The New York Academy of Medicine and the University of Munich, using the original 1543 wood blocks to reproduce illustrations from the Fabrica and Epitome (this was the last time images were taken from the woodblocks; returned to Munich, they were subsequently destroyed by Allied bombing during WWII). All of these volumes will be available to view at the festival on October 18. You will also be able to learn more about Vesalius and his work: Daniel Garrison will discuss translating the Fabrica for the new English-language edition, Arlene Shaner will explore the story of the Icones Anatomicae, and Drs. Jeff Levine and Michael Nevins will provide a guide to the possible stories hidden in the changes made to the Fabrica frontispiece between the first and second editions.

References

1. Harvey Cushing, A Bio-Bibliography of Andreas Vesalius (New York, Schuman’s, 1943), p73; Daniel Garrison, “Why Did Vesalius Title His Anatomical Atlas “The Fabric of the Human Body”?” http://www.vesaliusfabrica.com/en/original-fabrica/inside-the-fabrica/the-name-fabrica.html

2. The identity of the artist responsible for the wood blocks remains unclear, although many have argued that Jan Stephan Calcar, a student of Titian, was responsible. See Vivian Nutton’s introduction at http://vesalius.northwestern.edu/.

3. More details about the life and impact of Vesalius can be found online in Vivian Nutton’s introduction and other essays at Northwestern’s Annotated Vesalius project: http://vesalius.northwestern.edu/ and in C. O’Malley, Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, 1514-1564 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964).

Virtual Dissection

Kriota Willberg, the author of today’s guest post, explores the intersection of body sciences with creative practice through drawing, writing, performance, and needlework. She will present at our October 18th festival, Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500.

Artistic and clinical examinations of the body share many of the same processes. The artist and the clinician study the body’s mass, look for irregularities in its shape and color, locate bones, joints, and muscles, take notice of the breath. They watch the body and its parts move through space, assess joint alignment, and determine if their subject’s physical parts and relationships are assembled or functioning in a desirable form. The languages for and techniques of analysis vary by discipline but the object of exploration is the same.

"Dhanurasana illustration" by Kriota Willberg

“Dhanurasana illustration” by Kriota Willberg. Click to enlarge.

My careers are grounded in the exploration of the body. There was a time when I would take a morning ballet class, teach anatomy in the afternoon, and in the evening either work a shift as a massage therapist or go to a dance rehearsal. To relax on the weekends I would draw musculoskeletal anatomy illustrations for my class handouts.

Drawing, dancing, and massage all require skills in postural assessment. As a massage therapist I also palpate deeper structures, locating them under skin, fat, and other layers of muscle. As a dancer I learned to feel my musculoskeletal structures via movement exercises that isolate muscle groups or coordinate the body as a whole. Through years of building experiential and objective understanding of the body, physical assessment has become second nature to me.

Friction “…Bundle of Fibers” by Kriota Willberg.

“Friction” by Kriota Willberg. Click to enlarge.

Anatomy entertains and delights me everywhere I go. I study the foot and ankle alignment of strangers as they climb the subway steps. I monitor my two amputee cats for the development of functional scoliosis. I measure and palpate the skin and adipose of my husband, or myself, or the cats, as we sit on the couch and watch the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. I comment on Pierce Brosnan’s resemblance in the film to a dissected human subject illustrated in an Albinus anatomy text from 1749.

Tomorrow Never Dies from “The Anatomy of 007” by Kriota Willberg. Click to enlarge

Tomorrow Never Dies from “The Anatomy of 007” by Kriota Willberg. Click to enlarge

The world is an anatomical wonderland. Anatomy is all around us and all we have to do is see it and feel it.

"Pictorial Anatomy of the Cute" by Kriota Willberg. Click to enlarge.

“Pictorial Anatomy of the Cute” by Kriota Willberg. Click to enlarge.

I’m not unique in my perspective of the world of anatomy. There are many people in arts, sciences, and health professions who are skilled at virtual dissection. We can look at you, through your clothing, and through your skin and fat to see the muscle and bone beneath. We share the same skills and sometimes we share the same sense of humor. But our cohort is somewhat rarified. I intend to bring more people into the knowledge and skills that will enable them to join our “club.”

I train others in methods of seeing the body as a clinical or artistic tool. As a part of this instruction, I draw the body on a body. Using a live model, I locate bones and joints, tracing bony landmarks in rinseable ink. Then I locate a muscle’s attachment sites, connect them, and “flesh out” the muscle’s contours and fiber direction.

Willberg anatomy drawing. Model: Wendy Chu

Willberg anatomy drawing. Model: Wendy Chu

Willberg anatomy drawing. Model: Wendy Chu

Willberg anatomy drawing. Model: Wendy Chu

We watch levator scapula lengthen with upward rotation of the scapula. Or the hamstring elongate to seemingly impossible length as the model moves through deep hip flexion. The upper pectoralis major shortens as the lower part lengthens when the model brings her arms overhead. After 27 years of teaching, I am still entranced by these simple movements.

At the Vesalius 500 celebration on October 18, we will look at the body with the double vision of the anatomist. Part live-drawing performance, part slide show/lecture, part conversation, we will explore the (kin)esthetic relationships of our anatomy. I’ll present a narrated slideshow of artworks from A(lbinus) to V(esalius) to enhance and define actual and fanciful relationships of our parts to our whole. A live model and I will create associations between these illustrations and the living body by tracing superficial and deep connections of muscle to movement. The presentation will include opportunities for you (the audience) to ask questions and comment on your own experiences with the study of anatomy.

See you there!

Naissance Macabre: Birth, Death, and Female Anatomy

Brandy Schillace, PhD, the author of today’s guest post, is the research associate and guest curator for the Dittrick Museum of Medical History. She will speak at our October 18th festival, Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500.

The dance of death: Death emerges from the ground and is greeted by a group of allegorical women, symbolizing the vices. Woodcut after Alfred Rethel, 1848. Credit: Wellcome Library, London

The dance of death: Death emerges from the ground and is greeted by a group of allegorical women, symbolizing the vices. Woodcut after Alfred Rethel, 1848. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Click to enlarge.

The danse macabre, or dance of death, features whirling skeletons and other personifications of death stalking the living. These images appeared regularly in the medieval period, particularly after outbreaks of bubonic plague. One of the salient features was death and life pictured together, frequently in the form of a young and beautiful woman. The juxtaposition symbolized how fleeting life could be, and served as a warning against vice and vanity. While death and the maiden might remind viewers of their own mortality, another set of images became far more instructive to the preservation of life: death and the mother—the anatomy of the pregnant womb.

From Jacob Reuff’s The Expert Midwife. Image courtesy of the Dittrick Museum.

From Jacob Reuff’s The Expert Midwife. Image courtesy of the Dittrick Museum.

The 1500s saw the proliferation of full-figure anatomy. Jacob Reuff’s The Expert Midwife (and other texts like it) displayed women with their torsos peeled back, daintily displaying their inner organs. Plenty of scholarship has focused on the near-wanton and sexualized poses of these and of the “wax Venus” figures, some of whom appear to be in raptures despite being disemboweled. Male figures also appeared in full and sometimes opened—many of Vesalius’ plates in On the Fabric of the Human Body provide these interior views. The male gaze is often directed at the viewer or at the anatomy, while female figures tend to look askance (perhaps with modesty or shame at the revelation of their innards). By the 18th century, however, the whole had been replaced by sectioned and partial anatomies. No longer were the figures walking, dancing, or—in the case of women—curtseying. Instead, only the relevant bits appear in the pages of the atlas, which meant (in pregnant women) only the womb.

Easily the most famous works on pregnant anatomy in the 18th century, William Smellie’s A Sett of Anatomical Tables and William Hunter’s Gravid Uterus provide a portal for viewing key developments in the practice of 18th-century midwifery. In Tables, Smellie set out to demonstrate technique, but, as historian Lucy Inglis explained in a recent talk at the Dittrick Museum, Hunter was more interested in ensuring his fame by making scientific discoveries on the causes of maternal death in childbirth. In fact, the title Gravid Uterus suggests just how primary the womb had become; the women to whom they belonged are depicted headless, limbless, with bloodied cross-sections of stumped legs.

From Hunter’s Gravid Uterus. Image courtesy of the Dittrick Museum.

From Hunter’s Gravid Uterus. Image courtesy of the Dittrick Museum. Click to enlarge.

Neither anatomist provided entire forms—there was no expectation that they should. But Smellie’s models often included sheets of cloth to hide, but also to suggest, extremities. There is some debate about whether Hunter deliberately tried to achieve artistic or visceral impact,1 but unlike the birthing sheet, which hid the woman’s body from the midwife, the atlas rendered the female form more than denuded: It was naked of flesh, severed in places, the internal matter laid open for observation. At the same time, these female anatomies, like silent muses, were invaluable to the practice of midwifery, particularly as it pertained to difficult and dangerous cases. So what was gained—or lost—by these piecemeal renderings?

In February 2013, I worked with Lucy Inglis on a temporary gallery at the Dittrick that showcased both atlases, not for the sake of their authors, but to exhibit the work of the artist. Jan Van Rymsdyk—the artist behind the majority of figures in both atlases—had a “forensic eye.” He attended when Hunter obtained a new corpse and sketched as the dissections took place. Once, he watched a stillborn baby, more suited to the illustration, substituted within a dead woman’s womb. Lucy and I pondered the ramifications of this, the strange artificial quality of these posed cadavers. Enlightenment ideals required strict adherence to evidence, to the “real.” And yet, even here, anatomies were constructed by doctor and artist, a “dance” that renders plain the problems and process of birth at the moment of death.

In Dream Anatomy, historian Michael Sappol suggests that mastery over the dead body was akin to mastery over oneself, and even a kind of mastery over death.2 He notes, too, the attempts of early anatomy texts to shock the reader, and even the pleasure of shock; the sense that anatomists and anatomy artists wielded an erotic power in undressing the body.2 The detachment necessary to the task (and feared by a public concerned that dissection rendered doctors inhuman) cannot be universally applied to all, however. Van Rymsdyk suffered something akin to a breakdown from the hours spent hovering over dead women and their children with his palette of chalks—and Smellie turned his anatomical information into instruction for saving the lives of women and children. Even so, in the naissance macabre, artist and author reduce female anatomy to constituent parts: woman becomes womb, objectified as teaching tool…a mute muse, but a muse none the less.

References

1. McCulloch, N.A., D. Russell, S.W. McDonald. “William Hunter’s casts of the gravid uterus at the University of Glasgow.” Clinical Anatomy 14, no. 3 (2001): 210-217.

2. Sappol, M. (2006). Dream Anatomy. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 34.

Guest curator Riva Lehrer on Vesalius 500

Our “Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500” festival guest curator, artist and anatomist Riva Lehrer, describes some of her thinking about bodies, anatomy and art.

In 1543, when Andreas Vesalius published his De humani corporis fabrica (On the fabric of the human body) many contemporaries refused to accept his results. They contradicted canonical texts passed down over millennia: belief and expectation trumped direct experience and observation.

It’s easy to smile condescendingly at such pig-headedness. Yet we can scarcely look in the mirror without being caught in a fog of distortion. Every day we’re overloaded with information about how we should look and how our bodies should work. There are still plenty of ways in which our biases form medicine, and medicine, in turn, forms us.

"Circle Stories #4: Riva Lehrer" 1998  self portrait

“Circle Stories #4: Riva Lehrer” (1998).

I was born with visible disabilities. My body has always been seen as lacking, in need of correction, and medically unacceptable. My parents and doctors pushed me to have countless procedures to render it more “normal” as well as more systemically functional. These were two different streams of anxiety—how I worked and how I looked— yet they became inextricably woven together. My life in the hospital gave me a tremendously intimate view of medicine, as does the fact that I come from a family of doctors, nurses, and pharmacists. It gave me an acute awareness of how medical choices control and shape our bodies.

I first studied anatomy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later at the University of Illinois at Chicago, as a visiting artist in the cadaver lab. I often think about what my first anatomy professor told me, many years ago. She remarked that when she was a child, people grew into their original faces. Whatever oddities they were born with formed what they looked like, year after year. Faces were hard-won and unique. But modern dentistry, nutrition, grooming—all the large and small interventions of medicine—made people look much more alike than they did sixty years ago.

In the 21st century, medicine is not just about the “correction” of significant impairments; personal perfectibility is as much the point of modern medicine as the curing of significant diseases. We view our bodies as lifetime fixer-upper projects.

Yet, it’s that very fluidity that opens profound questions about the identities our bodies express. Technologies such as radical cosmetic surgery, cyborgian interfaces, and gender reassignment procedures raise and complicate our expectations. Medicine offers new options if the inside of our bodies does not match the appearance of the outside. We live in a state of wild restlessness, trying to see and feel who we are. We see chimeras of possibility.

"At 54" Riva Lehrer 2012 self portrait

“At 54” by Riva Lehrer (2012).

My body was not normalized through all my surgeries; yet the original body I had would not have lived. It’s been changed so many times that I can’t even guess at what it would have been. My own mutability has given me a deep interest in the two-way relationship between one’s body and the course of a life.

I teach anatomy for artists at the School of the Art Institute and am a visiting artist in Medical Humanities at Northwestern University. My studio practice focuses on the intersection of the physical self and biography. I interview people in depth about the interweaving of their bodies and their stories. These interviews become narrative portraits, as I try to understand what can be known about a life in a single portrait image.

Join us as we explore the role of anatomy in identity formation through our celebration of the 500th anniversary of Vesalius’ birth. We’ve invited artists, performers, scholars, and historians to help us ask how our imaginations form our living flesh. Let’s all look in the mirror and ask, what are we really seeing, and what do we believe we see?

Some of the issues our speakers will explore include:

""Chase Joynt" by Riva Lehrer and Chase Joynt 2014

“”Chase Joynt” by Riva Lehrer and Chase Joynt (2014).

—How do we decide what is “lifesaving” and what is “elective” surgery when it comes to identity? Transgender performer Chase Joynt questions what it means to save a life, and how his dealings with the medical establishment led him to question such choices.

—How many of us were raised with the constant imprecation to stand up straight? Sander Gilman peers into the use of posture lessons in public schools to control the American body.

—Artist Steven Assael creates dramatic portraits of New Yorkers, from street performers to elderly eccentrics. His work shows us how identity travels from the inner self to the outer shell.  Assael is a long-time professor at New York’s School of Visual Arts, one of the last bastions of serious anatomical study in the U.S.

—Famed choreographer Heidi Latsky will discuss GIMP and how she creates dance for performers with a range of movements and morphologies. A performance and film excerpt bring us into the innovative strategies used by the GIMP collective.

—Many contemporary artists use anatomy in investigations of identity and formal exploration. Curator Ann Fox will present images from an international roster of artists. She will be joined by Taiwanese artist Sandie Yi, who will show work that deals with the intense difficulties of having a physically different body in China.

"Coloring Book" Riva Lehrer 2012

“Coloring Book” by Riva Lehrer (2012).

Graphic Medicine is a consortium of comics artists who explore medicine from the standpoint of doctor, nurse, patient and family member. The founders of Graphic Medicine, MK Czerwiec and Ian Williams, will discuss how the vulnerable body is rendered in comics form. Comics allow artists to move from the inside of the body to the outside in seamless transitions, to weave together objective perspectives and highly personal, subjective experiences.