Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 9, 2020
Dániel Margócsy, Mark Somos, and Stephen N. Joffe The "Fabrica" of Andreas Vesalius: A Worldwide Descriptive Census, Ownership, and Annotations of the 1543 and 1555 Editions Medieval and Early Modern Philosophy and Science, 28. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2018. 536 pp. Cloth £146.00 (9789004336292)


In spite of decades of scholarship on the history of the book in the age of print, the central mystery that plagues any given history of the book or a book remains the elusive nature of readers’ reception and interpretation of both words and pictures. While the works of Robert Darnton, Roger Chartier, Lisa Jardine, and Anthony Grafton have contributed substantially to the history of reading in Western Europe, there are many questions that remain about the nature of book reception. Such questions are particularly salient when the texts in question are thought to have initiated paradigm shifts in the history of scientific practice or knowledge. Analysis of reception in these cases would ideally show how interaction with a given text led to perceptible changes in understanding and caused a ripple effect among readers across geographic and cultural borders. Such assumptions about the shared experience of reading are essential to Elizabeth Eisenstein’s influential, albeit contested, argument that print technology allowed for a standardized dissemination of scientific ideas that could be tested, and thus that print culture itself can be understood to have led to the scientific revolution (see her The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe [Cambridge University Press, 1979]).

While there have been some notable successes in expanding our understanding of readers of a given text in early modern Europe, tracking and analyzing practices of readership are notoriously and painstakingly difficult. Owen Gingerich and Robert S. Westman’s pathbreaking study traces a group of readers in Eastern Europe who read Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus as a community and traded annotations on the text, but this type of in-depth analysis is rare (Gingrich and Westman, The Wittich Connection: Conflict and Priority in Late Sixteenth-Century Cosmology [Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 1988]). The most comprehensive approach is the census, in which data is analyzed to reveal readerly practices around a given text both horizontally and vertically across historical periods. However, such an approach can prove quite arid, presenting an apparently granular analysis that nevertheless fails to animate practices of reading or reception in a given period. By contrast, a study that merely looks at the history of a single reader or their library runs the risk of generalizing from a case that might be entirely idiosyncratic. The most productive approach would be to combine these two methods, but this requires a delicate balance between employing Annales-style scholarship, with its attendant attention to accumulated statistics, and using a microhistorical lens that focuses on details revealed by a single object of scrutiny.

Dániel Margócsy, Mark Somos, and Stephen N. Joffe have produced a census of the two initial editions of sixteenth-century anatomist Andreas Vesalius’s widely heralded anatomical atlas—De humani corporis fabrica—that is exemplary for what can be achieved by combining the census model with reception history. (Brill seems to be specializing in these types of projects, as the press also published Owen Gingerich’s comprehensive Annotated Census of Copernicus’ “De Revolutionibus” in 2002.) In a formidable undertaking, the three authors, plus an expanded, crowd-sourced network of scholars, sought to find, view, and trace the provenance of every known copy of both the first edition of 1543 (308 copies) and the second edition of 1555 (422 copies). The census focuses on these two editions because they were personally overseen by Vesalius, who not only closely supervised the printing of the first edition but also rewrote and adjusted parts of the second. The result is a fascinating study of the book’s influence and survival over the five centuries following its publication. At 517 pages, the final product is daunting, but most of the relevant information is conveyed in the well-written and comprehensive first five chapters (1–134). The rest consists of individual catalog entries for each copy of the Fabrica reviewed by the team of researchers, including both those found in public or publicly accessible collections and those in private hands.

The Fabrica is above all a founding text of early modern medicine, and it is often thought to have initiated critical changes in the approach to medical epistemology, particularly via Vesalius’s insistence on direct dissection of human cadavers. Vesalius famously critiqued the second-century Hellenistic physician Galen, whose anatomical writings were foundational for late medieval medicine, because the latter did not dissect the human body and relied too heavily on animal dissections. The Fabrica’s detailed and elegant woodcut images, now generally associated with Flemish artist Jan Stephan van Calcar, are among the most celebrated and emulated depictions of the human body from the sixteenth century. Indeed, outside of the history of medicine, the images are generally far better known and recognized than Vesalius’s text. Of the many surprising things that this study reveals, however, is the apparent indifference most sixteenth- and seventeenth-century readers showed to these notable illustrations. Here is where the dual approach taken by the authors reaps some of its most interesting results. The census accounts for shifts in ownership over roughly five hundred years. The two editions were primarily owned by physicians in the first two centuries following publication, and then ownership began to shift—to religious institutions by 1700 and then, progressively, to libraries, by 1800. This historical development is demonstrated clearly in well-composed and accessible graphs. But the authors also accumulate data on the handwritten inscriptions in the margins and on the front and back pages of many volumes, tabulating and analyzing the results. This produces some surprising insights. One is that regardless of the reader’s professional identity or institutional affiliation, there are relatively few annotations or marginal responses to the woodcuts. It is clear that the illustrations, while they might have been admired, did not generate a sustained engagement in terms of anatomical questions. Interaction with the images is most notable for taking two forms: corrections (by adding labels or marginalia for clarification) and censorship.

As the authors note, reactions to the woodcuts are more apparent in the many anatomical texts published after 1543 that pirate Vesalian images through copying and mirroring. This sort of expanded response to Vesalius’s publication is outside the purview of their study, which is confined to the two texts associated with Vesalius himself. But it does raise the tantalizing prospect of additional research that might deal with the impact of the images in a more comprehensive way. Such a posthistory of the woodcuts might also extend what can be said about the apparent (although also relatively rare) instances of censorship tracked in this study. It could show more broadly what was valued in the images over time and why, as well as how the Vesalian images contributed to or subtracted from the construction of early modern narratives about human anatomy and anatomical inquiry.

To a certain degree, these questions are implied by one of the other critical insights garnered by the researchers. Examining the marginal comments, Margócsy, Somos, and Joffe determine that the part of the text that prompted the most interaction and commentary is book V, where Vesalius deals with the organs of generation. The annotations are the most textually interactive and corroborate the sense that some historians have had that the mid-sixteenth century is characterized by an increased attention to issues of sexual difference, disease, and, particularly, issues of conception and reproduction. As the authors point out, the medieval manuscript compendium of women’s diseases, the so-called Trotula, was printed for the first time in 1544, just one year after the Fabrica. Vesalius does not contribute much to general knowledge of conception and generation; in fact, he mostly parrots Galen regarding the organs of generation. However, as the authors indicate, Vesalius initiates a social shift in the medical view of female sexuality. Galen’s view was informed by the relatively neutral notion that “pleasure dictates the design of the reproductory organs” to achieve the teleological end of conception. Vesalius espouses the very nonneutral idea that “God carefully controlled how much pleasure women may get” in order to prevent them from “deceiving” men. That is, Vesalius submits sexual difference to moral and social categorization under the guise of disclosing bodily truths through empirical observation. Certainly Vesalius’s approach to sexual anatomy was partly filtered through his evocation of the homology between male and female sexual organs, what Thomas W. Laqueur calls the “one-sex” model. While the supposed historical dominance of the one-sex model has been subject to vigorous and justifiable debate, which Margócsy, Somos, and Joffe choose not to engage directly, their study reveals that readers were clearly drawn to Vesalius’s descriptions and explanations of sexually homologous anatomical phenomena, such as the perceived parallel between female menstrual and male hemorrhoidal bleeding. It is startling and notable that these comparisons generated the most active marginal interactions from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century readers. Especially when coupled with the fact that most readers do not seem to have compared what they read and saw in Vesalius to observations made during dissections, such critical evidence suggests that the reception of Vesalius’s ideas and methods may have been very different from what has historically been assumed.

All in all, this census is a very important and far-reaching study that transforms our understanding of the Fabrica’s reception and impact. The reading practices that are revealed demonstrate that while Vesalius had a critical impact on the study of the human body, it was not entirely because he initiated a new empirical approach through dissection. Instead, it seems that he may have sparked speculation on the nature of sexual difference, connecting social discourses on gender in late Renaissance Europe to the developing field of anatomical inquiry. 

Lyle Massey
University of California, Irvine

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