A milestone in medical science

A leaf from De Humanis Corporis Fabrica (On the fabric of the human body) by Andreas Vesalius, printed by Johannes Oporinus in Basel in 1543 (420 x 285 mm)

By 1543, when this leaf was printed, Basel had become part of the Swiss Confederation. The city was now officially protestant, and a centre both for publishing and for humanist scholarship – a cultural movement promoting the study of the language, literature and history of classical Greece and Rome.

One visitor to the city was Brussels-born Andreas Vesalius, the man credited with bringing the light of humanism to the scientific study of anatomy. In 1542, aged only 28 but charged with the ‘iconoclastic zeal characteristic of the 16th century’* he brought with him the manuscript of a radical new textbook on human anatomy. This he entrusted to Basel’s leading scholar-printer, Johannes Oporinus, for publication.

The book appeared the following year in a handsome edition under the title De Humanis Corporis Fabrica (On the fabric of the human body). It was special in two ways: for its authority and for its illustrations. Vesalius had experience of human anatomy gained through careful and detailed dissections which he did himself, rather than watching others. As a result Fabrica soon earned a place as one of the most important books in the development of medicine. ‘With this book the modern science of anatomy was born’, it is claimed.

The superbly detailed illustrations are a feature of the book. They were printed from woodblocks which had been prepared for the author in Venice by the best craftsmen of the age, possibly with the assistance of an artist from Titian’s workshop. The illustrations would be reused, copied or plagiarised for generations to come. (In fact the original woodblocks survived in Germany until World War 2.)

Oporinus was an obvious choice to publish this groundbreaking book. He had experience as a proofreader working for Johannes Froben, while also pursuing an academic career that led to professorships at Basel university. He even had some medical training. He became a fulltime printer-publisher in his early thirties and though never very successful in a business sense, managed to publish some 700 editions over the next thirty years. (One of these, a Latin version of the Koran, landed him in trouble with the Basel authorities, until Martin Luther spoke up for him.)

Vesalius dedicated his Fabrica to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and it is this dedication that appears on my leaf. The heading translates as ‘To the Divine Charles V, the Mightiest and Most Unvanquished Emperor: Andreas Vesalius’ Preface to his books On the Fabric of the Human Body.’ The enormous woodblock initial Q incorporates a scene of putti (secular cherubs) embarking on the dissection of a boar, while one of their number reads instructions from a book and others hold surgical instruments.

The Emperor was clearly impressed. After Vesalius personally handed him a de luxe copy of the book, Charles appointed him physician to the imperial court.

Books from the Oporinus press were particularly prized for their accuracy – less so as examples of fine printing. Fabrica seems to be an exception, however. Steinberg describes it in Five Hundred Years of Printing as ‘a masterpiece of typographical harmony’.

*Printing and the Mind of Man, J. Carter et al, London and New York, 1967, p. 43.