Friends and enemies in the Fabrica


In addition to explaining human anatomy and castigating the errors of Galen and other authorities, Vesalius used the words of the Fabrica to reward friends with high praises and punish enemies by advertising their offenses. This was a common practice in Renaissance writing. The skilful deployment of praise and blame was a lasting display of power as well as a way of paying off old and new scores.

Par excellence, the first of friends was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Vesalius' patron and the employer of his father, who served as court pharmacist. The praises laid on in the Preface to the Fabrica lead up to this peroration:

I am rightly mindful of Alexander the Great, who did not wish to be painted except by Apelles, cast in bronze except by Lysippus, or sculpted except by Pyrgoteles, and I have thought it still less proper for me to enumerate any of your praises here, lest I pour darkness instead of light on them by my meager and unpracticed style—especially since the hackneyed ritual of prefaces is altogether to be condemned in which indiscriminately and with little regard to merit, as if in accordance with some standard formula and for the sake of some cheap gratuity, everyone is routinely credited with admirable learning, singular prudence, remarkable clemency, keen judgement, untiring generosity, remarkable love for men of letters and scholarship, supreme dispatch in the conduct of business, and the entire chorus of virtues, in which everybody knows perfectly well (though the words are not mine) your majesty exceeds all mortals no less than in dignity, success, and triumphant achievements. For this you will be venerated in your own lifetime as if you were the greatest divinity, whom I pray the gods may not begrudge to science and all the world, but most abundantly preserve and protect for mortals unharmed and forever successful.


More often selected for special praise were personal friends. One such person had known Vesalius during his student years in Louvain, 1536—37, and later participated in the defense of Louvain against the invading French in July 1542. The tribute to Pfluegel was also an oblique complement to Charles V, adversary of the French in this war. The last words of Book I chapter 5 in the 1543 Fabrica pay this tribute to


a most zealous student of the works of nature and a most high-minded young man, Christopher Pfluegel of Salzburg, who is learned in many languages, skilled in other arts, and particularly distinguished for his knowledge of civil law; he recently gave an outstanding example of his utterly superb courage when as commander of the students of the University of Louvain he so swiftly and rapidly freed Louvain from its second great seige.


For reasons unknown (possibly Pfluegel's death) the passage was dropped from the 1555 Fabrica. Some of those mentioned in the fulsome manner reserved for such tributes had encouraged Vesalius to undertake the Fabrica and may have provided material support:

Marcus Antonius Genua is accustomed to contemplate the harmony of the organ of hearing with the greatest pleasure. Not only is this man the most consummate of musicians but also the special glory of the philosophers of our time, an eminent person and a professor of philosophy, the most learned among the Paduans in a variety of disciplines, to whom students of science will owe as much as they will gain from this effort of mine, since he first inspired me to begin this work, and has been no less my eager counsellor than the rare model of virtue Wolfgang Herwort, a patrician of Augsburg, because of his incredible goodwill toward letters and scholars; most worthy of immortality, and special object of my devotion while I live because he has left nothing undone within his powers for the completion of this work.


Some of these personages may also be represented in the title page of the Fabrica. O'Malley speculates that the former of the two mentioned above, Marcantonio Passeri of Genoa (1491 1563), professor of philosophy at Padua, is the figure standing to the right of the dissecting table in the title page of the Fabrica (shown right), admonishing the barking dog (who appears also to be stepping on his toe) to be silent—or, more plausibly, fending off a pickpocket who is about to be collared by another spectator standing behind him. Wolfgang Peter Herwart (1514-1585), a native of Augsburg, probably became Vesalius' friend while they were students at Padua. O'Malley speculates that he is the large man standing to the left of the dissecting table, his right hand on his hip, on the title page of the Fabrica (shown left).
At least one of the friends mentioned cordially in the 1543 Fabrica later became a critic and rival. The anatomist Renaldo Colombo is mentioned in Bk. I chapter 13 as "my good friend Renaldo Colombo, now a professor of sophistic at Padua, a most diligent student of anatomy." But the two later fell out when, after Vesalius had taken imperial service, Colombo gave anatomy lectures at Padua and began belittling his former professor's reputation. One of Colombo's dubious claims to distinction was that he had discovered the clitoris (De re anatomica, 1559, p. 243), which he named amor Veneris, vel dulcedo.

Among the enemies attacked in the Fabrica are plagiarists whom Vesalius does not mention by name, their identity known only from later statements by Vesalius and detective work by 20th century scholars. Jobst de Necker, for example, is mentioned in the Preface only as "the Augsberg engraver," who in June 1539 issued an unauthorized edition of the Tabulae sex . "The Strasburger" identified as Walther Ryff, a notorious plagiarist who pirated a large number of books between 1541 and 1545, is castigated in the same Preface as having "done the worst disservice to medical study because he has so disgracefully reduced illustrations which could never be made large enough for students, colored them execrably, arbitrarily surrounded them with the Augsburger's version of the text, and published them as his own work." Ryff receives additional criticism in Book III of the Fabrica for faults in his plagiarized illustrations: "Though that traced copy is inferior for many reasons, it must also be rejected because all the veins represented there appear to be distributed on only one surface of the body, and seem to belong only to the anterior part." (It was Vesalius' practice to create a three dimensional impression by shading blood vessels that are farther away from the viewer.) Another plagiarist, Johannes Dryander, draws fire in Vesalius' Preface as one "who is still indiscriminately compiling pictures from other people's books everywhere and publishing books of that kind at Marburg and Frankfurt." He is alluded to in Bk. 2 ch. 7 as a "certain mathematician" who misrepresented the saw best suited for cutting the bone of the skull, and again, more courteously, this time by name in Bk. 5 ch. 4. Appointed professor of mathematics and medicine at Marburg in 1535, his Anatomia capitis humani (Marburg,1536, 1537) was one of the first illustrated anatomy books. In 1541 he had plagiarized the illustrations in Vesalius' Tabulae sex (1538), a popular and potentially profitable set of anatomical posters with marginal comments. Part of Vesalius' immediate success grew from his realization that good illustrations were essential to the study of anatomy and his ability to obtain the services of skilled artists and wood engravers. Publishers, professors, and booksellers were all too quick to cash in illegally on his success.

Though books had been mass produced with movable type for nearly a century by the time Oporinus published the Fabrica in Basel, they could still be hard to get, and hard feelings could result when access was denied. Vesalius made no secret of his annoyance that he was not allowed to see a Greek copy of Galen's introductory treatise On the Bones,

when certain persons indifferent or even hostile to the common good so suppress the Greek copy that I was unable for any reason to obtain permission from them to use it for a time. Except for Balamius and Cardinal Rodolphus, they even admitted that they had it, but only on condition that it not be shared with me.

Here the targets of Vesalius' anger are named: Ferdinandus Balamio (fl. ca.1515), physician to Pope Leo X, translated Galen's De ossibus into Latin; Rodolpho Pio of Carpi was made cardinal in 1536. Vesalius' irate reference to Cardinal Pio, who lived until 1564, was prudently deleted from the 1555 edition of the Fabrica. The same note of exasperation returns in Book II chapter 19 when Vesalius complains of the loss of the later books of Galen's manual On Anatomical Procedures:

The part of his book De anatomicis administrationibus in which he surely explained the muscles of the tongue is lost to us together with his work On Dissection, or rather is being suppressed in the hands of persons who begrudge the common good, and it cannot be used (when it should be teaching dissection) as it lies in obscurity to be gnawed and cut apart by maggots and bookworms.

The outlines of a passionate nature appear often enough to remind us that the author of the Fabrica was not only one who remembered his friends but also a young man of impatient temper, with little inclination to turn the other cheek when offended.