Treasures of the Library : De humani corporis fabrica. Epitome


Treasures of the Library

<p> <iframe width="490" height="275" src="//" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe> <br/> <br/> The <i>Epitome</i> was a companion piece to the <i>Seven books on the fabric of the human body</i> (commonly known as the <i>Fabrica</i>, both published in 1543 in Basel and authored by Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564). The <i>Fabrica</i> is well-known for its rich variety of woodcuts that embodied Vesalius’s call to establish anatomical knowledge by means of first-hand dissection, following the example of Galen. From its title, the accompanying <i>Epitome</i> might sound like a shorter edition of the <i>Fabrica</i> – indeed it has the same woodcut frontispiece – but it is also a very unusual book.</p> <p>The <i>Fabrica</i>, dedicated to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, was printed on a large folio paper (leaf height c. 43 cm) and ran to over 700 pages. The paper for the <i>Epitome</i>, dedicated to Charles V’s son, the sixteenth-year-old prince Philip (the future Philip II of Spain) was c. 55 cm. As this digitized copy shows, it had far fewer pages than the <i>Fabrica</i>. The size of the book must have made it difficult to transport. Some surviving copies, such as the one in the Bavarian State Library as well as this copy, show a horizontal crease across the middle of the title page (books were sold without hard covers in this period), so they may have been folded for transportation. Though it is generally difficult to work out for this period the price (let alone the cost) of printed books, we know that in the year of publication (1543), the <i>Epitome</i> was sold for 10 batzen, the equivalent of 4.5 meals at an inn in Basel.</p> <p>Both the making of the manikin and the colouring of the Cambridge copy are believed to have been done in the sixteenth century. The copy of the <i>Fabrica</i> Vesalius presented to the Emperor (formerly in the Haskell F. Norman Library, and sold at Christie’s, New York, in 1998) was lavishly coloured. The colouring of the frontispiece of this copy of the <i>Epitome</i> shows some similarities, such as the marbling effect of the cartouche bearing the title of the book. Although the range of colours deployed seems to be quite similar, the colouring of the clothes and architectural details is different between the two. At present, the connection between these two copies is unclear, and therefore it is not possible to confirm the speculation that the Cambridge <i>Epitome</i> was the copy Vesalius had dedicated to prince Philip.</p> <p>The <i>Epitome</i> contains a very brief summary of the anatomical structures in the <i>Fabrica</i>, and includes large woodcuts of the dissected body, and a sheet that can be cut up and glued together to make a layered paper manikin. The manikin was made up in this copy (in some copies the original sheets have been left intact), and has survived, almost miraculously. The frontispiece, the author portrait, a figure of the skeleton, and the initials from the <i>Fabrica</i> are re-used in the <i>Epitome</i>.</p> <p>Underneath the woodcut of the frontispiece, Vesalius explained the structure of the <i>Epitome</i>. It has two parts: the first part contains a ‘very succinct’ textual description of all parts of the body; and the second part shows delineations of those parts, with keys and legends. Thus the reader may start at the beginning of the book and read through the concise summary of the text of the <i>Fabrica</i>, building the body from the bones upwards to the skin. Alternately, one may begin from the male and female nude figures towards the end of the book.</p> <p>Turning the pages from the male nude towards the beginning of the book, the reader could follow the order of dissection, with the layers of the male nude gradually being removed. The front and the back of the dissected body were printed on either side of a page, except the reverse of the male nude, where Vesalius repeated a skeleton figure from the <i>Fabrica</i>, to emphasise the primacy of bones.</p> <p>Turning the page from the female nude, the reader encounters the paper manikin, with layers of individual organs and attendant blood-vessels. The book originally came with additional sheets paper, with a full-size figure of blood vessels surrounded by images of individual organs and some veins. These were to be cut out, glued together and pasted onto a base figure of veins, arteries and veins, to make a layered manikin. The intricate details of these organs must have been a challenge to cut out and would have made them very flimsy. The layers of the Cambridge manikin are backed with a manuscript – such recycling of manuscripts was common in this period and many have been found as part of bindings covering incunable books. The manuscript is a fourteenth-century legal text, possibly French, adding another layer of interest to the story of this particular copy.</p> <p>In this large but slender book, Vesalius thus offers his description of the human body, how the body is dissected, and how the body is put together. It is an ingenious way to convey knowledge about a three-dimensional body in a two-dimensional medium of the page. It is a visual embodiment of the human body as envisaged by Vesalius in the <i>Fabrica</i>.</p> <p>This copy of the <i>Epitome</i> was once owned by the Professor of Anatomy at Cambridge, Alexander Macalister (FRS, FSA, 1844-1919). It then belonged to the Library of the Department of Anatomy, which transferred some of its oldest holdings to the University Library in 1999.</p> <p>Professor Sachiko Kusukawa<br/> Fellow in History and Philosophy of Science<br/> Trinity College<br/> University of Cambridge</p> <p><b>Bibliography:</b></p> <p>Andreas Vesalius, <i>Résumé de ses livres sur la fabrique du corps humain</i>, text and translation by Jacqueline Vons, introduction, notes and commentary by Jacqueline Vons and Stéphane Velut (Paris: les belles lettres, 2008), this supersedes the translation by L. R. Lind, <i>The epitome of Andreas Vesalius</i> (New York: Macmillan, 1949).</p> <p>This item is also available in a free to download <a href="">iPad app</a>, with expert discussion from Professor Sachiko Kusukawa and additional contextual materials.</p>

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