The Beautiful Scientific Striptease of Vesalius: De Humani Corporis Fabrica
Like a breath of fresh air after the Middle Ages, an anatomy book reached the hands of medical students and changed the metaphor of the human body.
Before the 1453 publication of De humani corporis fabrica by Andreas Vesalius, the work of an anatomy professor was to comment from on high on the writings of Galen while, below, his assistants dissected a cadaver. Students never handled a corpse. In other words, since the Middle Ages there had been no progress in the subject and the human body was seen, essentially, as a mess of blood and tissue. The appearance of De humani was not only one of the most important contributions to medical science but also to the most beautiful books of the 16th century, with a guaranteed place in the annals of the art of woodcut. The printed reliefs, we can say, endowed “carnality” to anatomical exactitude.
At just 28 years old, Vesalius had already returned the word “autopsy” to its original meaning: to “see for oneself.” A pioneer of the scientific spirit, in his nearly 700 impeccably printed pages, more than 300 original illustrations of the highest merit were ordered from the workshop of Titian in Venice. De humani corporis fabrica, literally “Of the Factory of the Human Body,” was made to complement then anachronistic studies of the human body and especially so that students would understand what they’d later see for themselves on the autopsy table.
To make the cognitive leap toward understanding the strangeness of the body, Vesalius resorted to metaphor and analogy, among the most fascinating resources for knowledge. He described muscles with images of fish, a pyramid, and the letter C. Other body parts are described with horns, with networks, rivers, pumpkins, milk jugs or the trunks of trees. He saw veins and arteries as pipes, synovial fluid as oil and the skeleton like the beams and joists of a house. He drew streets in the digestive system, a winery in the stomach and pulleys in the ligaments. What student would not memorize such crazy and simultaneously logical images?
The metaphor of the body thus fully entered into the realm of signs. Its anatomical parts were numbered or rather, lettered, such that the body was understood as a language. Still, the figures never lose the expression of the highest emotion, as noted by Heather McHugh in possibly the most beautiful text written about the book. In De humani even the most powerful muscular gesture bears the mark of spirit. And the longer the images are observed, the more undeniable this becomes.
We know ourselves through this very cartography that made a striptease of the anatomical sciences. The man who resembles the world is made from the world, Vesalius’ metaphors seem to tell us, which came like a breath of fresh air after the Middle Ages. After all, to change the metaphor of the body is to change History.
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