When it comes to anatomy, Vesalius wrote the book. James Le Fanu dissects the Renaissance genius

Andreas Vesalius casts the longest of shadows. Together with the physiologist William Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of the blood a century later, he laid the foundations of medicine as an intellectually rigorous discipline grounded in the 'methods' of Observation and Experiment. His De humani corporis fabrica libri septem – a First Edition of which is offered from the library of W. Bruce Fye in March by Bonhams New York – is a brilliant synthesis of art and science and more, a philosophical reflection on the human body and an autobiographical commentary revealing his personality and achievement.

That personality is vividly evoked on the title page, in a dramatic mise en scène with the author himself center stage, an exemplar of the spirit of the Renaissance. Vesalius stares out at us from a crowded amphitheater, the stout female corpse on the table in front of him indicating his zeal for knowledge. Human dissection, before the advent of formalin and refrigeration, was not for the faint-hearted. "Unless you have a love for such things," Leonardo da Vinci remarked, "you will be hindered by your stomach." Vesalius has no such squeamishness. He recalls how, as a medical student, he would 'borrow' the skeletons of executed criminals to make up for the scarcity of material for dissection.

"While out walking where the corpses are displayed on the country roads, I came upon a cadaver which the birds had freed of flesh. Observing it to be dry and nowhere rotten, I took advantage of this unexpected, but welcome, opportunity to climb the stake and pull the femur away from the hip bone. Upon my tugging the arms and hands also came away... which I surreptitiously brought home in successive trips."

That zeal is closely linked to a second Renaissance virtue – a mistrust of received wisdom. Vesalius trusted his own judgment rather than that of his teachers, who are portrayed in 'The Preface' as: "perched like jackdaws up aloft, with egregious arrogance, croaking out things they have never investigated, but merely committed to memory from the books of others. Thus... days are wasted in ridiculous questions."

The gestures of his hands evoke two further characteristics of the Renaissance spirit. The delicate fingers of the right emphasize the importance of technical expertise in the handling of tissues – for anatomy is as much a practical as an intellectual discipline.

Finally, looking carefully, Vesalius's left index finger can be seen pointing upwards indicating his acknowledgement that "the most delightful knowledge of man alludes to the wisdom of the creator of all things".

Vesalius, "a most engaging and forthright man", was born in Brussels in 1514 into a family of physicians and apothecaries with connections to the royal court stretching back over three generations. He studied Latin, Greek and Hebrew at the University of Louvain, before enrolling at the conservative medical school in Paris. From there, he moved to the University of Padua, at the time a haven of scholarship for hundreds of foreign students from across war-torn Europe. The high regard in which he was held is reflected in his being appointed Professor of Surgery the day after his graduation, aged just 23.

He came to realize the standard anatomical texts, based on the 2nd-century AD Greek physician Galen's dissections of primates, were riddled with error. "I read Galen at least three times before I dared perceive his mistakes", he wrote, "and now I can't be sufficiently astounded at my own stupidity." Those textbooks would have to be rewritten but – and this was his great insight – in an entirely new way. Inspired by the visual genius of the great Renaissance painters, his book would allow the reader to see the interrelationships of the anatomical parts. This was a formidable task for, as the art historian Martin Kemp observes, "The creative process necessary to convey the anatomical detail to his illustrator [his countryman Jan Stefan van Calkar, a pupil of Titian] was of the utmost intellectual and representational complexity."The De Fabrica took six years to complete; the first edition, published in 1543, runs to 750 folio pages.

Its division into seven books allowed Vesalius to describe each of the major systems of the body in turn, illustrated by 320 engravings including 22 full-page woodcuts. Three highlights of this "immortal work" merit special attention, starting with his exposition of the bony skeleton, which emphasizes the relationships of its 200 separate bones. First, the skeleton of a gravedigger leans on his spade, his left arm pointing expressively to the hole in the ground and the mound of earth just excavated. Next, seen from the side with its hand resting on a skull, he is in reflective mode, as suggested by the inscription on the plinth vivitur in genio, caetera mortis errund ('man's spirit lives, all else death's hand shall claim').

Finally, we see the skeleton from the back in the position of mourning. These three poses, ingeniously, encompass the full range of movement of the major joints of both upper and lower limbs. The powerful imagery and technical skill of these engravings is eclipsed by the even more challenging task of doing the same for the muscles. These are not only more numerous – 400 in all – but arranged in several layers, one beneath the other. The 14 'muscle men', as they are known, gesture like Old Testament prophets, the better to convey their movement. From one plate to the next, the removal of the overlying layer reveals progressively deeper structures beneath, while their three-dimensional relationships are clarified by the ingeniously controlled change of posture.

In a further brilliant stroke of that imaginative genius, Vesalius renders more accessible the necessarily dense and detailed text by embellishing the initial letters with delightful, macabrously humorous scenes of naked cherubic figures performing some activity associated with anatomy – removing a corpse from a gibbet, preparing skeletons, dissecting a pig and so on.

The publication of De Fabrica made Vesalius famous, but a year later, perhaps prompted by the hostility of his erstwhile teachers, he resigned his post as Professor of Surgery and destroyed his notes and anatomical drawings. Like his father before him, he entered the service of the Emperor, becoming Imperial Physician first to Charles V and then his successor, Phillip II of Spain. Twenty years later, in a wistful letter to his successor at Padua, Gabriele Fallopia (of Fallopian tubes fame), he regretted having been "diverted from that throng of learned men whose studies are dear to our hearts... towards the practice of medicine, numerous wars and continuous travel". He died in a shipwreck off the Greek island of Zante at the age of 50, returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Vesalius endures in the manifold achievements of modern surgery – and also as the personification of that true spirit of enquiry to which all should aspire.

Dr James Le Fanu is a columnist in The Daily Telegraph and historian of science and medicine.

Sale: The Medical and Scientific Library of W. Bruce Fye
New York
Monday 11 March at 10am
Enquiries: Ian Ehling +1 212 644 9094
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