Andreas Vesalius1514–1564

The renaissance of anatomy

The renaissance of anatomy is associated with Vesalius, who published his book De Humani Corporis Fabrica in 1543. It is taken to be a synthesis of science and art because of the high quality of its anatomical illustrations. The blocks from which the woodcuts were printed survived into the 20th century. The portrait of Vesalius is presented within the woodcut of the brain, as seen from below. The Fabrica was a seven volume treatise, and shortly afterwards an Epitome, placing more emphasis on the illustrations, was published. Vesalius presented an account of anatomy that was almost free from the legacy of Galen. It was based on human rather than animal (Barnary ape) dissection and the illustrations were produced by an artist (probably Jan Stephen van Calcar, a Dutch painter living in Italy and a member of the school of Titian) who was present during the dissections. While Vesalius could examine the structure of the brain with his own rather than Galen’s eyes, he did not pay too much attention to it. He was more accurate than Paré in his representation of the base of the brain that charted the course of the optic nerves to the optic chiasm and beyond. The separate and ipsilateral projection of the optic nerves was integrated into Descartes’ analysis of vision. The convolutions of the brain are displayed (although not according to a precise design), as are the cerebellums; the visual pathways are clearly shown. His diagram of the eye did not match the accuracy of those for the skeletal musculature and internal organs: a symmetrical lens was still located in the centre of the eye and the optic nerve was situated on the optic axis. He listed the various structures, but did not pursue their function in any detail. Although Vesalius was Flemish by birth, he carried out his dissections in Italy, principally in Padua.