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Illustration from Vesalius’s annotated  ‘De humani corporis fabrica’ (1555) (via Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library)

When it was published in 1543, Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica changed anatomical study with its elegant illustrations of the interior of the human body. An exhibition at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is marking 500 years since Vesalius’s birth, in 1514 in Brussels, with a presentation of his monumental publication, including an edition with his annotations.

Annotations by Vesalius (via Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library)

Vesalius at 500opened in May, features a long unknown second edition of De fabrica from 1555 that was acquired by the library last year. There would be no third edition, so the alterations in the author’s own hand are the only evidence of his ideal version of the book. The publication merged art and anatomy with illustrations cut into pear wood and printed alongside text that focuses on a hands-on approach to dissection in medicine. (The artists for each illustration aren’t always clear, but many are cited to be by Jan van Calcar.) The figures have skin peeled off, brains exposed, and muscles flayed, and they pose like Renaissance models in pastoral landscapes.

Vesalius is “responsible for bringing art — and these things [De fabrica illustrations] are really true art — into medicine, not so much for their accuracy but for their beauty,” curator and Fisher librarian Philip Oldfield explains in a video for the exhibition. Along with the annotated copy of the book, the show displays works Vesalius would have read as a student, as well as the English translation of De fabrica completed last year. Vesalius died in 1564, but his reach into medicine was radical, showing a new way to teach anatomy when previously doctors had been hands-off from the actual dissection of the body. And in art, De fabrica argued that the inner workings of the human body could be a thing of beauty.

Portrait of Vesalius by Jan Wanderlaar (1725) (via Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library)

Muscles diagrammed in ‘De humani corporis fabrica’ (1543) (via Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library)

Title page of ‘De humani corporis fabrica’ (1543) (via Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library)

Illustration from Andreas Vesalius’s ‘De humani corporis fabrica’ (1543) (via Wikimedia)

Illustration from Andreas Vesalius’s ‘De humani corporis fabrica’ (1543) (via Wikimedia)

Illustration from ‘De humani corporis fabrica’ (1543) (via Wikimedia)

Vesalius at 500 continues at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library (120 St. George Street, Toronto) through August 29.

h/t Samantha Sandassie

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

3 replies on “The Renaissance Anatomist Who Celebrated the Beauty of Flayed Flesh”

  1. There is merit in citing the artist, Jan Steven van Calcar, who actually drew the visuals in Vesalius’ DeFabrica.

    1. Good point, I can add. Since the exhibition is about Vesalius that was the focus of the article.

  2. Readers might get a kick out of John Peck’s “Cider and
    Vesalius,” a poem from his 1972 collection Shagbark, also part of his Collected
    Shorter Poems (2004). It begins:

    Like a fruit wine with earth
    Clouding its sweetness, color
    Of day’s end, this cider
    Collects light from the window
    Of October—I scan
    Vesalius the surgeon’s
    Woodcut anatomies
    Sliced and prepared for the eye’s
    Terminal erudition:
    This solvent ruddy earth,
    Chilled, is best commentary. . .

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