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Joking with Printed Images: Vesalius, Putti, and Courtly Ambition

USTC 606035.

By Richard Bellis |

Andreas Vesalius’s 1543 work, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (On the fabric of the human body in seven books, USTC 606035), is considered a landmark publication in the history of anatomy, because it provided the first comprehensive set of illustrations of the anatomy of the human body based on dissections undertaken by the anatomist. Vesalius argued anatomists should dissect for themselves, rather than relying on the publications of ancient writers such as Galen and Hippocrates, as was typical at the time. The illustrations in De fabrica were central to his argument, as they vividly demonstrated the potential advantages of seeing the dissected body for oneself, as well as facilitating the understanding of anatomy.[1]

USTC 606035. Universitätsbibliothek Basel.
One of the ‘muscle-men’ from Vesalius’s De fabrica,  USTC 606035. Image courtesy Universitätsbibliothek Basel.

Other images had different roles in Vesalius’s work. The series of historiated capitals, or initial letters, that began each chapter and subsection, were intended to promote Vesalius as an appropriate candidate to join the court of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. The capitals, such as those pictured below, depicted various medical scenes related to anatomy acted out by putti—chubby male children. In De fabrica putti carry cadavers, dissect humans, vivisect animals, articulate skeletons, assist physicians, aid births, treat patients, and more besides. They show both the grubby reality of anatomical inquiry, and the advantages of doing so for therapeutics. But how did this demonstrate that Vesalius was a suitable courtier?

In the Renaissance, putti were playful. As discussed in Charles Dempsey’s Inventing the Renaissance Putto:

Summoned into existence by the artist, the putto gives him a hand, helping him and ornamenting his work everywhere. […] From the cradle to the grave he keeps guard over mankind. He stands and mourns beside the bier, bedecks the tomb with garlands or proclaims the glories of the dead. The putto plays his biggest role in the decoration of churches:– he flutters onto the altars and tabernacles to festoon them with garlands of fruits and flowers, […] he looks down from some high ledge laughing into the abyss with no thought of danger; he scrambles amid the leaves and blossoms of the tendrils twining round the pilasters; he plays with his companions in childish glee […]. With their music and childish games played on the altars and pulpits, putti offer a measure of relief from all the earnest themes taken from the Passion […] playfully mimicking and mocking […].[2]

Putti were used by artists to decorate places associated with death and funerals: the altar, the bier, the church, the tomb. In doing so, their role was to undermine the orderliness of their surroundings in delightful ways, enlivening the setting in which they were placed. In Vesalius’s De fabrica, putti were ever-present in their usual deathly haunts, but transcended their usual roles to take on an active part in the pursuit of anatomy, just as Vesalius advocated throughout his work.

It was learned, and it was a joke. Vesalius was demonstrating that he was skilled at deploying his wide knowledge—here of both art and science—with grace and nonchalance that disguised the difficulty of doing so, which was the ideal for any courtier.[3] Furthermore, the presentation of anatomy in a playful framework worked to familiarise non-experts with otherwise unfamiliar scientific procedures and phenomena. The display of ‘jokes of nature’—whether real, such as coral (which hardens when exposed to air), or fabricated, as many examples of mythical animals such as manticores or unicorns were—entertained courts: the presentation of science, theatrical. Courtiers would delight in discerning between real objects and clever illusions which would deceive the ignorant.[4] In the case of Vesalius’s capitals, for the eyes of the ignorant they were interesting page decoration, but for the knowledgeable they were a playful, clever, and amusing reference to Renaissance art.

USTC 606035.
Putti articulate a skeleton. Image courtesy Universitätsbibliothek Basel. USTC 606035.

However, this was not all Vesalius did to impress the court. With his printer Johannes Oporinus in Basel, Vesalius produced coloured presentation copies of his work, which were even illuminated with gold leaf. Though Vesalius’s work is not particularly rare—around 250 copies of the 1543 edition survive in private and institutional collections and several of the participating libraries in the Preserving the World’s Rarest Books project have copies—certain copies of it are rare in other ways.[5] For example, the Cambridge University Library has a wonderful coloured copy of Vesalius’s Epitome, a shorter version of De fabrica published at the same time; the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in Toronto holds a copy of the second, 1555 edition which has corrections marked in Vesalius’s own hand.[6] Those copies that Vesalius himself owned and distributed were particularly important for building his reputation and network. It was with such purposes in mind that, after the first edition was printed in 1543, Vesalius travelled north from Basel to the court of Charles V with a presentation copy in hand. What Charles thought of the work is unknown, but Vesalius was immediately accepted into his service. A physician as knowledgeable as Vesalius would be immensely useful. And he knew a joke or two.

[1] Kusukawa 2012, p.3.

[2] Bode in Dempsey 2001, pp. 20-26.

[3] Moran 2006, p.253.

[4] Findlen 1990, p.319.

[5] Margócsy, Somos, and Joffe 2017, p. 208.

[6] Nutton 2012, pp. 415-443.


References and Further Reading

Andrew Cunningham, The Anatomical Renaissance: The Resurrection of the Anatomical Projects of the Ancients, (Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1997).

Charles Dempsey, Inventing the Renaissance Putto, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

Paula Findlen, ‘Jokes of Nature and Jokes of Knowledge: The Playfulness of Scientific Discourse in Early Modern Europe’ Renaissance Quarterly, Volume 43(2), (1990). pp. 292-331.

Sachiko Kusukawa, Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany, (London: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

Dániel Margócsy, Márk Somos, and Stephen N. Joffe, ‘Vesalius’ Fabrica: A Report on the Worldwide Census of the 1543 and 1555 Editions’, Social History of Medicine, Volume 30(1), (2017). pp. 201-233.

Bruce T. Moran, ‘Courts and Academies’,  in Katharine Park, and Lorraine Daston (eds.), The Cambridge History of Science Volume 3: Early Modern Science, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). pp. 251-271.

Vivian Nutton, ‘Vesalius Revised. His Annotations to the 1555 Fabrica’, Medical History, Volume 56(4), (2012). pp. 415-443.

Vivian Nutton, ‘Introduction’ in Daniel H. Garrison, and Malcolm H. Hast (trans.), The Fabric of the human body. De humani corporis fabrica libri septem. Andreas Vesalius; an annotated translation of the 1543 and 1555 editions, (London: Karger, 2014) pp. LXXV-CIV.

For more on Vesalius, see: http://www.vesaliusfabrica.com/en/home.html

To make your own ‘anatomical manikin’ based on Vesalius’s work, see: https://history.rcplondon.ac.uk/blog/make-your-own-anatomical-manikin-human-anatomy-model-inspired-andreas-vesalius

For more on putti and science, see: https://wellcomecollection.org/articles/XJiOmxAAAJfnROHC


Richard Bellis’s research focuses on the history of anatomy and disease in the eighteenth century, which includes an interest in the history of medical and scientific publishing and incorporates digital humanities research methods. After completing his PhD at the University of Leeds on the work of Dr Matthew Baillie (1761-1823), he has held postdoctoral positions at the universities of St Andrews and Bristol. You can follow him on twitter @richardtbellis.


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Image from the Universitätsbibliothek Basel (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International) and E-Rara (Public Domain).