Proceedings 3    May 1987The Danson Room, Trinity College, Oxford

Medieval Medicine, Renaissance Art and Modern Scientific Anatomy: a talk by Professor Samuel Y Edgerton of Williams College Mass.

In his welcome to the speaker, Dr Crombie spoke of his distinguished work in the field of art history and in particular to his work on the history of perspective. The society’s president also extended a special welcome to visitors at—the meeting with a special interest in art history.


Preliminary to his discussion of 16th-century treatises on anatomy which were to form the principal theme of his address, Professor Edgerton observed that very little was known about the way in which early publishers merchandised their books - about how they styled their message to attract new customers. Pictures in the form of woodcuts and engravings were clearly an important element in sales appeal and the treatises on anatomy provided excellent examples of the fortuitous relation between word and image. The most renowned example, Vesalius’s De humanis corporis fabrica (‘On the Structure of the Human Body’) was published by Johannes Operinus at Basel in 1543. Its illustrations, renowned for their beauty, have outlived the text. It could be said that, because of their artistic excellence the social status of those studying arid practising anatomy rose during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Professor Edgerton stressed that in his view the study of anatomy had been held back up to this time less by any ecclesiastical prohibition than by the lack of interest among wealthy upper-class patrons in this loathsome and ugly science. The Church, indeed, never took a strong or even consistent stand against human dissection. The practice was restricted as much by the difficulty of obtaining cadavers - these coming usually from the execution grounds - as by religious objections, It was important they be not too badly mutilated by the executioner or torturer and that they be taken during winter time when risk of putrefaction was less. in fact that in most o-f Europe’s medical centres no more than three or four dissections were conducted in a year was attributable to these reasons, and also to objections among relatives and friends.

The small number and infrequency of dissections made it the more important to find an effective way of recording .the ‘live’ anatomy lessons. The development of artistic techniques and the fascination of Renaissance artists with the human body combined o to provide the looked for solution. Leonardo was not alone among artists in dissecting bodies

Like other sciences, medicine was divided between ‘theoria’ and ‘practica’ with theory much the more prestigious. Disputation not dissection was the desideratum for a university trained doctor of medicine. Actual surgery tended to be left to the disdained barber surgeons. With the admiration entertained by Italian humanists for the works of Galen, which they were restoring to good standard texts from the original Greek this attitude began to change. The great Latin edition of Galen, the Giunta Edition of 1541-42 laid the emphasis, revealed in its frontispiece illustration, on Galen the practising physician and especially the anatomist.

Humanist encouragement of empirical anatomical practice brought new respect to the barber surgeon, helping gain eventually the prestige of the university professor of medicine.

The most widely used medical text book in the 15th-century university was the Anathomia of Raimondo dei Luzzi, or ‘Mondino’/’Mundinus’, first published in 1316 and first printed in 1491. Its frontispiece shows how anatomy was taught up to the mid-16th century. The cadaver on the table is surrounded by students while at a high desk sits the lector. As he reads from the authorities such as Galen and Mundinus, the ostensor points to the parts of the body under review and which have been exposed by the knife of the sector; any organ which failed to correspond to the classical description was dismissed as deformed or atypical.

Since anatomical dissections were rare, both professors and students had to rely on books, up to the late 15th century un-illustrated or crudely illustrated. The quality of illustration in German manuals tended at this time to be far superior to those in Italy. In 1491 appeared “Das ist das Buch der Cirugie”, (‘The Book of Surgery’), written in the vernacular by Hieronymus Brunschwig, published by Johannes Grüninger, Strasbourg, and superbly illustrated. Clearly intended as a practical manual, it inspired a new genre of book, the field manual of Wundartzny or “wound surgery”, in which illustrations of the wounded man demonstrating various types of war wound were given. The magnum opus of the type was Hans von Gersdorff’s Feldbuch der Wundartzney published by Johannes Schott of Strassburg in 1517 with illustrations by Hans Wächtlin. A fine artist and a follower of Durer, he had also attended anatomy lessons and became a recognised master of anatomical drawing, .Not to be outdone, Grüninger engaged him to illustrate Der Spiegel der Artiney (‘Mirror of Medicine’; 1518) written by Laurentius Phrysen; Wächtlin’s illustrations were as realistic as anything done by Leonardo.

Despite their accuracy, the German treatises set no new standard for the anatomical treatise in Italy. . Their undiluted realism often sacrificed beauty for visual truth. This was considered unattractive by people of ‘sensitivity and breeding’. In 1521 Jacopo Berenga da Capri, a distinguished Italian professor of anatomy and a note connoisseur of art, admired among others .by Benvenuto Cel1ini, published Commentaria super Anatomia Mundinus , an illustrated commentary on the early 14th-century Mondino, which would set the trend for Italian treatises. Berengario had his illustrator model his plates on currently fashionable paintings - e.g. by Raphael and Michelangelo - and show anatomical manikins in classical poses. He and his publisher had discovered the marketable qualities of Renaissance art in conjunction with anatomical illustration. This art was not concerned with human anatomy as such but with classical idealism. No educated 15th-century European could avoid the all-pervading classical visual idiom - Berengaria realised that anatomy would sell much better if presented in such emblematic surroundings. The de Fabrica of Vesalius represented the apogee of this new style of treatise.

The frontispiece of De humanis corporis fabrica (1543) reveals the author’s firm and revolutionary commitment to the practice as opposed to the theory of anatomy. It shows Vesalius not as the conventionally aloof lector, but as professor and sector down beside the cadaver. Nevertheless, to ensure his standing as a respected (and respectable) professional he had his artist depict the anatomy demonstration in the setting of a monumental, classical amphitheatre.

Manikin figure demonstrating the musculature of the human body. (Plate from De humanis corporis fabrica Vesalius, 1543)

The picture, besides exalting the social rank of the sector-professor, is a masterpiece of Renaissance art. Vesalius had entrusted the illustrations to the studio of Titian in Venice where, according to Vasari, the work was executed by the otherwise obscure Jan van Kalkar. Professor Edgerton presented persuasive arguments to buttress his contention that the chief hand in the masterly series of plates was that of Titian himself. In particular, he drew attention to the superb quality of the draughtsmanship of the cardiovascular figures and the muscle manikins. Moreover, not one of the illustrations is a direct copy of recognised masterpieces, as would have been expected from students or hack workers and even those images which are based on classical models such as the Apollo Belvedere are ingeniously and creatively adapted to the display of the internal organs with the technical assurance of a master. The close scientific accuracy of the plates, notably the flayed muscleman (above) clearly imply the close collaboration of Vesalius with the artist.

De Fabrica enjoyed instant success due above all to the illustrations. To capitalise on the commercial possibilities, the publisher had these collated in a separate publication, the Epitome which was, effectively, a Renaissance ‘coffee table book’.

The illustrations influenced subsequent anatomical works, specifically the Anatomia del Corpo Humano (1560) written by the Spaniard Juan de Valverde, illustrated by his compatriot Gaspar Becerra and published in Rome. Smaller and more readable than Vesalius, it was even more successful. ‘Becerra’ freely plagiarised the Vesalius plates and also took inspiration from Michelangelo, notably his ‘Last Judgement’ as in the figure of St Bartholemew holding his own flayed skin. Alluding to medieval allegorical interpretations of the flaying of Marsyas by the god Pan and of the corrupt Persian judge, Sisamenes, as the removal of their outer skin of sinfulness for offences against divine ordinances, Professor Edgerton noted that the face of Michelangelo’s flayed Bartholomew was that of the repentant Michelangelo himself. He argued that the anatomists fully understood the intended symbolism. Since the cadavers of the 16th century dissecting room were of criminals, the flayed skin symbolism could suggest that the skill of the dissecting anatomist had a redemptive aspect and that he could be regarded as something of a philosopher-priest. The final elevation in the surgeon’s status. Finally, the lecturer proposed that at least one factor in decided the young English physician William Harvey to study in Padua could have been the realistic, yet classically stylish and aesthetically pleasing, pictures illustrating the text books he studied at school. Certainly, Professor Edgerton concluded, the combination of the fashionable artistic styles with the intellectually exciting topic of anatomy provided an unbeatable merchandising formula for 16th century publishers.


Following questions from the floor and a brief discussion, Dr Crombie thanked Professor Edgerton for a stimulating and informative lecture. The talk was throughout illustrated with slides.