Introduction by Vivian Nutton

Conclusion
Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica of 1543 is one of the great books of the world, in every sense of the word. As a technical production, it ranks high in terms of quality, and its artwork, the co-production of anatomist, artist, block-cutter and printer, solved at a stroke many of the difficulties involved in representing a three-dimensional object on the printed page. Merely to see its beautiful lettering carefully spaced out on a wide page is to gain the impression that its theme is no ordinary one but something that deserves the closest attention from its choice readership. Its verbal message, although in part not entirely new, was equally striking. Although some of its details might be with justice attacked for exaggeration and error, its overall argument, that the human body could not rightly be understood without a careful and detailed study based on human dissection, carried conviction to his contemporaries. Their objections, for the most part, centred on the secondary premiss of the book, that Galen, whose methodology they and Vesalius claimed to follow, had failed to carry out what he preached: his anatomy of man was animal, not human. Yet, as this Introduction has argued, not all his contemporaries saw Vesalius as an anti-Galenist, nor can the Fabrica be simply characterised as the triumph of observation over the book. Vesalius’ achievement depends in part on his own book learning, and he was far from alone in demanding that one should view and touch a body, not merely read about it. In short, the Fabrica is a typical product of the Renaissance in combining both forward thinking and a desire to recreate anew some of the triumphs of the past.

The impact of Vesalius and his book was equally great. From its appearance in 1543, they were seen as marking a new epoch in anatomy. The ability of the printing press to reproduce its images, and Vesalius’ eagerness to transmit his message via the Epitome and in German translation, also ensured that what he had to say reached a wide audience quickly — unusually quickly, compared with other medical texts. Anatomy was already becoming fashionable before 1543. Public dissections in Italy were attracting large audiences, and the new Galenists, in Italy, France, England, and Germany, saw in the encouragement of anatomy confirmation that their revival of Galenic medicine had something new and positive to bring to modern medicine. Vesalius was thus part of a trend, and, although he gave a new specific direction to that trend, he did not create it entirely on his own, whatever the rhetoric of the Fabrica might suggest. It was a trend that impinged on wider aspects of culture, where by the end of the 16th century the metaphors of anatomy and anatomising became commonplace in booktitles. Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy is only the most famous example. In art, the new realism, encouraged both by the Council of Trent and by the example of Vesalius and his artists, placed an added emphasis on the body, especially in suffering. Art, literature, and anatomy thus meet within a wider intellectual culture that brought together, often in the same theatre, men of taste and learning. Anatomy was thus moving upwards, out of the gory hands of lower-class, monoglot surgeons, masters of the knife and human butchers, to a more elevated and elitist plane. Thanks to Vesalius, it could be regarded as something worthy of an educated gentleman, a subject fit for an Emperor.*

Vivian Nutton

* I am glad to acknowledge the helpful criticisms of Dan Garrison, Malcolm Hast, Monique Kornell, Nancy Siraisi, and Andrew Wear. Errors that remain are my own.


Introduction by Vivian Nutton