Art Informing Science

The illustration of the structure of the human body was a late development in medical education and the practice of healing. Most of the works of medical instruction known to healers and artists of the Renaissance were created in Greece or Imperial Rome and came to Western Europe through the Arabs. There was neither tolerance for human dissection nor traditions of illustrating human anatomy in a natural or realistic form in either of the cultures which developed and transmitted the knowledge.

In medical texts written and compiled even after the spread of the moveable type printing press and advanced woodcut technology, depictions of whole or partial human structures were rare. The few illustrations found in medical manuscripts or in very early printed books were more primitive and schematic in form and illustrative of the philosophical principles of healing and disease than illuminating in a realistic manner the human body's construction.

Even into the fourteenth century when human bodies for dissection were available in parts of Europe, few illustrations beyond primitive schematics were to be found. Thus the two reprinted works in this exhibit from ancient sources, Galen and Celsus have no anatomical illustrations yet both contained elaborate decorative initials. In some cases artists rather than physicians were the first to seek out anatomical specimens and study their structure for their art.

In the early sixteenth century a few anatomists saw the need for accurate and normative illustrations of body parts and organs for both research and teaching. Pre-Vesalian teachers of medicine and physicians such as Giacomo Berengario da Capri (ca. 1460-ca. 1530), Charles Estienne (1504-ca. 1564) and others created the atmosphere that sparked the need for illustrated anatomies of a new type, and Vesalius answered the call.

Vesalius' contribution to the history of human anatomy is epitomized in the pages of De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543). The three critical contributions brought together in Vesalius' revolutionary book represent largely the way that human anatomy is understood and studied today. De Humani Corporis Fabrica included illustrations and coordinating explanatory text that were free of slavish and often incorrect recapitulations of Galenic principles, detailed and newly discovered anatomical features derived from fresh and plentiful human dissections, and artistically beautiful illustrations that brought body components together as part of the whole human body. The success of De Humani Corporis Fabrica was also due to artistic skills and techniques appreciated by both physicians and artists.