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From woodcut to photograph: techniques of book illustration

Vesalius

Woodcut anatomical illustration of a man, with structures under the skin and protective tissue exposedWoodcut illustration of the human body exposing structures under the skin and protective tissueVesalius’s masterpiece, De humani corporis fabrica, is justly regarded as a landmark in both anatomical description and anatomical illustration. It amply demonstrated the capability of woodcut as a medium for accurate scientific depiction at a time when, ironically, the copperplate engraving was beginning to gain ascendancy.

Born in Brussels, Andreas Vesalius (1514-64) was a lecturer in surgery at the University of Padua. An advocate of the new spirit of scientific enquiry, he set out to produce a comprehensive textbook of human anatomy, based on direct observation and dissection of human cadavers.  Educated himself in the Galenic tradition of medieval medicine, he realised that Galen, who had relied heavily on the dissection of animals, was mistaken on several points.

It was partly to correct these errors that Vesalius embarked on the writing of De humani corporis fabrica; he also wanted to equip his students with the means of performing dissections themselves and, perhaps most importantly, to enable readers unable to attend a dissection to understand every minute detail of the construction of the human body through text and illustration.

De humani corporis fabrica contains over 200 woodcut illustrations, some integrated with the text, others occupying an entire page. Best known are the so-called ‘muscle-men’, a series of fourteen illustrations, which starts with the exposure of the structures under the skin and connective tissues and progresses through a series of gradually deeper dissections. The eleventh of this series of illustrations is shown here.

Vesalius engaged a number of different artists to produce the illustrations he required and laid great emphasis in his text on the importance of the illustrations as an aid to understanding. Letters of the alphabet, small enough to label individual body parts without distorting their depiction, act as a key to each illustration;  the reader turns to the facing page to learn the name of each part and to read more about its function, while a comprehensive index serves to take the reader to related chapters.

Vesalius was not the first anatomist to employ these features, but he was the first to use them to their full potential to create a work of immediate and lasting importance.

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