The beauty of anatomy. 2/5.

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About this work


In this five part series, Dr Adam Rutherford investigates the close relationship between discoveries in anatomy and the works of art that illustrate them. Here, Adam tells the story of Andreas Vesalius, the ‘founder of modern anatomy’, whose 1543 atlas of the human body, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), was the first of its kind. At the Wellcome Library in London, Adam views a first edition of the work. Vivian Nutton discusses Vesalius’ famous ‘muscle men’ sequence of illustrations; classic memento mori in ironically lifelike poses. These living skeletons showed the body in movement and reveal both the incredible accuracy and visual qualities of Vesalius’ dissections. Vesalius initially studied in Paris for several years where he gained a reputation as an extraordinarily skilled anatomist. When he arrived in Padua in 1537 (at the age of 23), he was swiftly promoted from student to teacher. Adam visits the theatre where Vesalius carried out his public dissections. By this time, public dissections had been performed for two centuries according to a strict tradition. The professor’s role was to read Galenic texts, while the procedure itself was carried out by a surgeon. Vesalius took a different approach, opting to perform the dissections himself. Keen to promote his work to a wider audience, Vesalius set about creating the Fabrica, with every illustration based on observational evidence. Versalius’ anatomy was informed by classic art. He referred to the muscle men as ‘canonical’ after Polykleitos, the Greek sculptor, whose canon spelt out the principles of harmony and proportion of the human body. Vesalius’ reputation secured him the role of physician to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. At Cambridge University Library, his influence can be clearly seen in sixteenth century English texts. After Vesalius, theories about the structure and functions of the body were only considered reliable if based on evidence.


UK : BBC 4, 2014.

Physical description

1 DVD (30 min.) : sound, color, PAL

Copyright note

Tern Television Productions Ltd 2014


Broadcast on 20 August 2014.

Creator/production credits

Produced and directed by Michael Waterhouse; Tern Television Productions for BBC



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