VESALIUS, Andreas (1514-64). De humani corporis fabrica libri septem. Basel: Johannes Oporinus, June 1543.
VESALIUS, Andreas (1514-64). De humani corporis fabrica libri septem. Basel: Johannes Oporinus, June 1543.

VESALIUS, Andreas (1514-64). De humani corporis fabrica libri septem. Basel: Johannes Oporinus, June 1543.

2 (420 x 277 mm). Collation: *6; A-Z6 a-l6 m6(2+1, 2+1 + fold-out sheet, both signed m3) n-o6 p4(3 + fold-out sheet signed p4) q-z6 Aa-Ll6 Mm8. 355 leaves and two folding sheets. Roman and italic types, occasional use of Greek and Hebrew types, printed shoulder notes. Woodcut pictorial title, author portrait, and printer's device; 7 large, 186 mid-sized, and 22 small woodcut initials; more than 200 woodcut illustrations, including 3 full-page skeletons, 14 full-page muscle-men, 5 large diagrams of veins and nerves, 10 mid-sized views of the abdomen, 2 mid-sized views of the thorax, 13 mid-sized views of the skull and brain, and numerous smaller views of bones, organs and anatomical parts; ALL WOODCUTS AND INITIALS WITH FULL CONTEMPORARY COLORING AND HIGHLIGHTS IN LIQUID GOLD AND SILVER. (m2+1 and the attached fold-out sheet extended at lower margin and possibly inserted from another copy, fold-out sheet p4 strengthened along fold on verso, one-line typographical imprint below title cut obscured by priming for the miniature, some dampstaining and spotting, lower outer corner of title leaf restored, some minor marginal repairs and a few paper flaws.) Contemporary purple silk velvet over pasteboard, spine in six compartments, evidence of four pairs of blue silk ties, vellum linings (worn and frayed, defective at tail of spine); modern black morocco box.

Provenance: Charles V (1500-58), Holy Roman Emperor, probably the dedication copy given to him by Vesalius in 1543 (inscription, coloring, binding); Jacques Mesnage (1509-56), French ambassador to the imperial court (early French inscription on flyleaf: "Ce Liure a est donn par lempereur Charles le quint a Messire Jacques Mesnage cheualier seigneur et patron de Cagny Ambassadeur Du Roy de France Francois premier aupres de sa personne"); Comte de Nicholay (Librairie Thomas-Scheler, cat. 3, no. 261).


Vesalius was born in Brussels, the son of an imperial apothecary, and the descendent of several physicians. After studying in Louvain and Paris, he completed his bachelor's degree at Louvain, publishing a thesis on the comparison of Muslim and Galenic therapy, Paraphrasis in nonum librum Rhazae ad regem Almansorem (Louvain, 1537). In Paris he studied anatomy under Johann Guenther von Andernach, who mentioned Vesalius in his Institutiones anatomicae (see lots 107 and 211), a dissection manual for medical students which Vesalius later revised. Vesalius criticized Guenther: "I do not consider him an anatomist, and I should willingly suffer him to inflict as many cuts upon me as I have seen him attempt on man or any other animal -- except at the dinner table." Nevertheless, Vesalius acquired an interest in anatomy which he pursued on his return to Louvain, as attested by the story of his robbing a corpse from a gibbet outside the city in order to obtain the skeleton, one of several he articulated during his career. In 1537 he matriculated at the University of Padua, an important center of medical instruction, and after taking examinations, was immediately awarded the degree of doctor and appointed to teach surgery and anatomy. During the next several years, he published several works, including a set of anatomical charts for the use of his students (Tabulae anatomicae sex, Venice 1538), his revision of Guenther von Andernach (lot 211), and the enesection Letter (lot 212). By this time he had also begun work on his masterpiece.

"With De humani corporis fabrica, published when he was only twenty-nine years old, Vesalius revolutionized not only the science of anatomy but also how it was taught" (Grolier Medicine). In contradiction to the common practice of his day, Vesalius insisted that human anatomy should be learned from the study of the human body and that the physician should undertake dissection himself rather than leave this work to assistants. Based on his own experience and observations, he corrected a number of errors made by Galen, the authority whose anatomy had been largely based on the dissection of animals. Dissenting from the traditional approach to dissection, he proposed that the logical order of anatomical study should proceed from the skeleton and muscles, through the blood vessels, nerves, abdominal viscera, and thoracic organs, to the brain. All of these principles are represented in the text and in the illustrations of De humani corporis fabrica, making this encyclopedic account of the structure and workings of the human body a fuller and more detailed description and illustration of human anatomy than any work that had preceded it.

Perhaps the most beautiful medical book ever published, the Fabrica combines scientific exposition, art and typography in a manner unprecedented in the 16th century and seldom equalled in later times. The more than 200 woodblocks for the illustrations were prepared in Venice under Vesalius' supervision and shipped to the publisher Oporinus in Basel with the author's precise instructions for placing them in relation to the text and for keying explanations printed in the margins to particular illustrations or details. The carefully drawn and accurately shaded illustrations marked a new level of realism and detail in anatomical illustration. Their scientific value is attested by the fact that they were repeatedly copied or plagiarized in subsequent anatomical publications for a century and more. The artistic quality of the Fabrica's illustrations has prompted much speculation as to the identity of the artist. On the basis of a statement by Vasari, they have been attributed to Jan Stephan von Kalkar (ca. 1499-1546/50), a Flemish compatriot of Vesalius and a pupil of Titian. Kalkar had contributed the three drawings of skeletons to Vesalius' Tabulae anatomicae sex, which was published at his expense in 1538, but differences in artistic quality between the Tabulae's skeletons and those of the Fabrica suggest that Kalkar was not responsible for the latter work. The three plates of veins in the Tabulae and the woodcut in the Venesection Letter, all based on drawings by Vesalius, indicate that he himself could not have been the artist of the Fabrica, although he may be responsible for some of the details and undoubtedly supervised the accuracy of the drawings as well as the cutting of the woodblocks. The illustrations of the Fabrica are now judged, on the basis of style and quality, to be the work of an unidentified artist or artists of the school of Titian.

In addition to their scientific value and beauty, the illustrations of the Fabrica are significant for their iconographic content. The historiated initials, drawn and cut especially for this edition, depict putti and dwarfs carrying out activities associated with the dissecting room. They have been called visual footnotes to the text, and reflect some of the ancillary but necessary activities known to have been carried out by Vesalius, e.g., preparing skeletons, or robbing graves to obtain cadavers for dissection. The series of fourteen muscle men stand in landscapes that, when assembled in reverse order, form a panorama of the Euganean Hills near Padua, a landscape undoubtedly known to Vesalius during the period when he was at work on the Fabrica. The remarkable full-page frontispiece incorporates several references to Vesalius' achievements and innovations. The physician himself stands at the center of the anatomical theater, demonstrating from the cadaver. This is a woman's body, at a time when it was more difficult to obtain female corpses for dissection than male ones, and a perhaps also a reference to the fact that Vesalius had performed one of his earliest autopsies on a female body. Behind Vesalius stands an articulated skeleton, while beneath the dissecting table and in the foreground, the barbers and surgeons quarrel, displaced from their former role of performing the dissection as the professor read aloud from Galen. Other assistants manage the animals, an ape and a dog, from which anatomy had in the past been learned. The young man behind the railing, diligently sketching in a book, undoubtedly represents the artist of the Fabrica, drawing from life as the dissection progressed.

The Vesalius of the frontispiece is recognizably the same man as the Vesalius of the portrait also published in the Fabrica. In the latter, he stands beside a table, pointing to a partially dissected hand and arm; both the dissection and the inscription on the parchment on the table refer to one of the passages in the Fabrica where that work corrects the teaching of Galen. Spielmann showed that the portrait of Vesalius in the Fabrica is the only authentic likeness of the author and that all later portaits are based on this one (The Iconography of Andreas Vesalius, London 1925). "Various scholars, including Harvey Cushing, Vesalius's bibliographer, have criticized the woodcut portrait of Vesalius ... for its seemingly disproportionate representation of Vesalius' body parts: the head appears too large for the chest, and the arms too short. However, Vesalius' concern with the accurate depiction of the human body ... and the fact that he reused this portrait both in the 1555 edition of the Fabrica and in his letter on the China root, suggest that the portrait reflects his true proportions and that Vesalius may have been somewhat dwarfed" (Grolier Medicine, p.71).

The present copy of the Fabrica is unique in having all the woodcuts fully colored in a contemporary hand. The rich palette used for the frontispiece, portrait and initials includes vivid deep shades of red, blue, yellow, green, brown and purple, combined with the use of silver for the dissecting instruments and abundant highlights in liquid gold. This coloring is comparable to that of the best 16th-century miniature painting and must have been applied by a skilled professional miniaturist. The anatomical illustrations, equally skillful in execution, are colored in natural shades scientifically applied to bring out anatomical details that might otherwise escape notice. Such coloring must have been carried out under Vesalius' supervision. Thus, incidentally, "the coloring of the portrait provides the only historical basis for our knowledge of Vesalius' complexion and hair color" (Grolier Medicine p. 370).

NO OTHER FULLY COLORED COPY OF THE FABRICA IS KNOWN. Cushing reported no colored copies in his Bio-bibliography of Andreas Vesalius (New York 1943). Of the 154 copies listed in the most recent census of the 1543 edition (M. Horowitz and J. Collins, 'A Census of Copies of the First Edition of Andreas Vesalius' De humani corporis fabrica (1543) ...,' Journal of the History of Medicine 39, 1984, pp. 198-221), only one other is said to have any coloring, a copy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Health Sciences Library, in which only the frontispiece, portrait, skeletons and a few other illustrations were colored in the 16th century in shades of red, brown, and green, with sparing use of blue.

The exceptional quality of the coloring in the present copy, as well as its uniqueness, taken together with its deluxe fabric binding and the inscription on the flyleaf, suggest that this was the dedication copy of the Fabrica, the one Vesalius presented to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in the autumn of 1543. Vesalius had dedicated the work to Charles, and in August 1543, when the printing of the Fabrica and its companion volume, the Epitome, had been completed, he left Basel, where he had been supervising the publication, to travel to the imperial court, then moving between Speyer and Mainz. There he was appointed physician to the emperor's household, a position he was to hold until Charles' abdication. In 1556, when the emperor ennobled Vesalius, granting him the rank of Count Palatine, the charter of ennoblement, which reviewed Vesalius' accomplishments and services, referred to "the publication so many years ago of your volume De humani corporis fabrica, of such erudition, very true judgment, talent, and industry, and so elaborated that hitherto nothing has been composed so eloquent, learned, and useful. It is easily and without question the greatest of all books which have been written about anatomy, and celebrated for its illustrations, so that as you have witnessed clearly, all students of medicine and the most distinguished professors and famous physicians acknowledge a very great debt to you. When you presented that same volume to us when we were setting out for the campaign in Guelders, you won us easily by your abilities so that we enrolled you as our medicus familiaris ordinarius..." (tr. O'Malley, in Journal of the History of Medicine, 9, 1954, pp. 207-8).

Although it has sometimes been argued that the work presented to Charles was the vellum copy of the Epitome formerly in the Louvain University Library, that work was dedicated to Prince Philip, later Philip II of Spain. Even if Vesalius also presented a copy of the Epitome at the court of Charles, the grant of nobility refers specifically to the Fabrica. No vellum copy of the Fabrica is known. Van Praet listed one, which he identified as the dedication copy, at the University of Louvain, but there is no evidence that he ever saw the book (Catalogue de livres imprims sur vlin, Paris 1824, I, n.72). Cushing thought he had seen one at Louvain, but later conceded that he was probably confusing it with an Epitome, of which three vellum copies are recorded (Cushing, p. 80).

Not only the coloring, but also the velvet binding and the gilt and gauffred edges, both highly unusual for a medical book, confirm that the present copy was an exceptional one which would have been entirely suited for presentation to the Holy Roman Emperor. The probability that this was indeed the dedication copy is strengthened by the early French inscription found on the flyleaf: "This book was given by the Emperor Charles V to Monsieur Jacques Mesnage, knight and lord of Cagny, ambassador of the king of France, Francis I, to the person of the Emperor." Jacques Mesnage, sieur de Cagny, played an important role in French diplomacy during the reigns of Francis I and Henri II. Attorney at Bayeux, counsellor to the parlement of Paris and the parlement of Rouen, he was ambassador from the king of France to the imperial court from March 1545 until the death of Francis I in March 1547 (Fleury Vindry, Les ambassadeurs franais permanents au XVIme sicle, Paris 1903). Later he served in embassies to Lorraine, Switzerland and Scotland, and was ennobled by Henri II in 1549. From July 1542 until September 1544 France and the Empire were at war, the occasion for the 1543 campaign in Guelders to which Charles referred when describing the presentation of the Fabrica. Peace was restored late in 1544 with the signing of the treaty of Crpy, after which embassies were exchanged between the French king and the emperor. Evidently Charles gave Vesalius' book to the French ambassador on some occasion during the two years, 1545-47, when Mesnage was resident at the imperial court.

Adams V-603; Choulant-Frank, pp. 178-80; Cushing VI.A.-1; Dibner Heralds of Science 122; Garrison-Morton 375; Grolier/Horblit 98; Grolier Medicine 18A (this copy); NLM/Durling 4577; Osler 567; PMM 71; Stillwell Science 710; Waller 9899; Wellcome 6560; Norman 2137.