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