Find thousands of books, manuscripts, visual materials and unpublished archives from our collections, many of them with free online access.

Eleven decorated initials from the Basel 1555 edition of Andreas Vesalius's De humani corporis fabrica. Woodcuts, 1555.

Date:
1555
Reference:
24653i
  • Pictures

Selected images from this work


About this work

Description

Each of the six books of the Basel 1543 and 1555 editions of Andreas Vesalius's De humani corporis fabrica begins with a large decorated initial, and each new chapter with a small decorated initial. For the 1555 edition, in addition to a larger typeface, a new set of smaller decorated initial letters were cut, of which these are a selection. Slightly larger than the smaller set of the first edition of Basel 1543, they represent the same subjects, but in a clearer fashion. They are further distinguished from the 1543 edition by having a single rather than a double framing line. The initial letters to the text, large and small, are peopled by children, or putti, engaging in anatomical and surgical activities. They perform dissections on human and animal subjects, retrieve cadavers from the gallows, steal bodies from graves, prepare articulated skeletons, perform operations, and vivisect animals. This playful portrayal of children in adult pursuits is a Renaissance revival of the antique, whereas the use of decorated initial letters in books is a legacy of medieval manuscript illumination. The identity of the artist responsible for the initial letters is unknown and there has been some debate regarding whether or not the initial letters for the second edition were cut in Venice or Basel. For this issue and others, see the summary of the earlier bibliography in Herrlinger 1963-1964. The initial letters are used repeatedly throughout the text and so do not necessarily reflect the content of the chapters which they initiate. See Loetzke 1970 for their incidence and distribution in both the 1543 and the 1555 editions. The initial letters decorating the later anatomical atlases of William Cowper's Myotomia reformata of London 1724 and William Cheselden's Osteographia of London 1733, are notable examples in the Vesalian tradition, both using children or putti

The letter "A": shows a catheterization being performed on a patient reclining on a cushion. An example of this initial is found in book I, p. 54. The letter "C": depicts a perforated bone box carried by four putti, who are about to place it in a stream. An example of this initial is found in Book I, p. 31. This was one of the methods used for cleaning bones of flesh in preparation for study and articulation (see letter "P", this catalogue record, below). This process was usually preceded by the application of lime and is described by Vesalius in Book I, chapter 40 of De humani corporis fabrica (Book I, chapter 39 in the 1543 edition). Another method, which Vesalius himself favoured, was the maceration of bones in boiling water, as illustrated by the large initial "O" to Book III in both the 1543 and 1555 editions. The letter "D": in this initial letter, the top of the head is being removed in preparation for a brain dissection. An example of it is found in book VII, p. 779. An earlier step in the narrative is seen in the decorated initial "O" (Book I, p. 14) in which a putto retrieves the decapitated head of a criminal from an executioner. The letter "E": is another outdoor scene in which putti are depicted reducing the fracture of the leg of an adult, using a glossocomum, a device used in ancient medicine. An example of this initial is found in Book I, p. 44. Its pair, showing the use of the same device, is the letter "F", found in Book I, p. 162. In the first edition, they appeared together as a set in Book III, p. 329. The letter "H": a surgical scene, depicting the use of an instrument with a perforated paddle that allowed for selective cauterization. An example of this letter is found in Book I, p. 22. In the 1543 initial letter "H", this procedure is carried out by two surgeons with a putto assistant, but in the 1555 edition, putti are used throughout. A similar replacement is seen between the two editions in the letter "C", described above

The letter "I": This scene has been the subject of different interpretations, dependant on the identification of the gender of the patient. Of these, an obstetric delivery seems most likely. An example of this initial is found in Book I, p. 42. The letter "N": a phalanx of putti carry a body on a bier. It is generally thought that they are transporting a cadaver for dissection, most likely that of an executed criminal away from the site of execution. Another possibility, suggested by Lambert 1952, is that they are carrying a wounded man from battle. An example of this initial is found in Book I, p. 116. The letter "P": four putti at work on the articulation of a skeleton. The bones of the legs have already been set in place. An example of this initial is found in Book I, p. 77. Vesalius sugests in Book I, chapter 40 (chapter 39 in the 1543 edition) that an awl be used for piercing the bones in order to link them with copper wire and that articulated skeletons be given a suitable prop, such as a scythe, as seen in the title page of the 1555 edition (see Wellcome Library catalogue no. 24561i), to give them greater stability. The letter "R": three putti anatomize the head of an ox. An example of this initial is found in Book I, p. 71. In the same letter of the 1543 edition, the head is more clearly identifiable as that of an ox and one of the putti is holding its eye. The letter "S": On the right of the letter, an animal is being inverted over a pot in order to drain it of its blood in preparation for dissection. To the left, two putti are laying out instruments, whereas in the 1543 edition they consulted a book. An example of this initial is found in Book I, p. 49. The letter "H": a surgical scene, depicting the use of an instrument with a perforated paddle that allowed selective cauterization. An example is found in Book I, p. 22. In the 1543 initial letter, this procedure is carried out by two surgeons with a putto assistant, but in the 1555 edition, putti are used throughout. A similar replacement is seen between the two editions in the letter "C", described in this catalogue record, above

Publication/Creation

Basel : Johannes Oporinus, 1555.

Physical description

11 prints : woodcut ; image 4.2 x 4.2 cm each

Lettering

A; C; D; E; H; I; N; P; R; S; H

References note

B. J. Anson, "The initial letters of 1555 edition of Vesalius's Fabrica," Quarterly Bulletin of the Northwestern University Medical School, xix, 1945, pp. 326-335
R. Herrlinger, "Die Initialen in der Fabrica des Andreas Vesalius," Acta Medicae Historiae Patavina, x, 1963-1964, pp. 97-117
S. W. Lambert, "The initial letters of the anatomical treatise, De humani corporis fabrica," in S. W. Lambert, et al., Three Vesalian Essays to accompany the Icones anatomicae of 1934, New York 1952, pp. 1-23
H.-H. Loetzke, "Die grossen und mittelgrossen Initialen in Vesals Hauptwerk. Synopsis ihrer Abbildungen und ihres Vorkommens in der ersten und zweiten Auflage," Anatomischer Anzeiger, cxxvi, 1970, pp. 480-499
R. Ollerenshaw, "The decorated woodcut initials of Vesalius' Fabrica," Medicial and Biological Illustration, ii, 1952, pp. 160-166

Lettering note

"Albert Dürer", in pen at lower left of mount

Reference

Wellcome Library no. 24653i

Type/Technique

Languages

  • Latin


Where to find it

  • LocationStatusAccess
    Closed stores

Permanent link