The fabric of the human body

The Ward Library recently acquired a monumental feat of modern book production: The fabric of the human body, a newly published translation of De humani corporis fabrica libri septem by Andreas Vesalius (1514-64).  This two-volume work was published by Karger in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of Vesalius’ birth. It represents the result of twenty years’ work by its translators Daniel H. Garrison (an emeritus professor of Classics) and Malcolm H. Hast (an emeritus professor of anatomy).  The fabric of the human body incorporates textual material from both the original, 1543 and the substantially revised 1555 editions of the Fabrica, both of them originally printed by Oporinus in Basel, together with the corrections made by Vesalius for an unpublished third edition, which came to light as recently as 2007. The modern volumes seek to ensure that the image and tone of the originals, all of which continued to concern Vesalius in his involvement with the text and its illustrations, are not lost in re-printing.  For example, the publication uses a typeface, created by font designer Christian Mengelt, to be a contemporary version of the Basel Antiqua used in the original Fabrica publications.  Colour printing allows a reader to differentiate changes made by Vesalius for each edition. The book is designed so that a reader can both follow the text of Vesalius’s anatomy and compare his terminology and practice with modern anatomical usage.

The fabric of the human body, title page

The fabric of the human body, title page

Vesalius revolutionised the study of anatomy by demonstrating the importance of dissection and of first-hand observation for medical training and scientific discovery. Prior to the publication of the Fabrica, students of medicine relied on the teachings of ancient Greek medicine, above all the writings of Galen, which had largely been developed on the basis of the study of animal rather than human anatomy. Vesalius’ findings led to dispute over a number of Galan’s theories, in addition to providing a meticulous study of the human body’s muscle, skeleton, and nervous system.

The first edition of the Fabrica, published in 1543, is one of a number of early scientific classics bequeathed to Peterhouse by Andrew Perne (c.1519-89). It is one of relatively few medical books owned by Perne and shows signs of significant use during the early modern period.  Unusually for one of Perne’s books, it was entirely rebound at an early date, probably around 1700 (it has subsequently been rebacked as well).  It contains bookmarks made from notes that translate parts of its content, and that also seem to date from the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century.  The book’s illustrations and historical significance mean that it is much consulted by medical Fellows and their students to this day: it is hoped that the provision of a high-quality translation and facsimile edition will therefore reduce wear and tear on this important part of the College’s patrimony.

Late seventeenth or early eighteenth century bookmark

Late seventeenth or early eighteenth century bookmark

Perne's 1543 edition of the Fabrica, rebound around 1700

Perne’s 1543 edition of the Fabrica, rebound around 1700

The Fabrica is interesting not only for its significant contribution to the development of scientific knowledge, but also for the artistry of its woodcut illustrations.  Many of the illustrations reflect a preoccupation with classicism and the Fabrica contains a number of macabre images of skinned bodies (known as ‘muscle men’) striking rhetorical poses in various rugged or romantic landscapes.

Fabrica 'muscle man'

Fabrica ‘muscle man’

In this new publication, The fabric of the human body, all of the Fabrica’s original illustrations are included as high resolution digital scans, allowing clear access to these beautiful and somewhat disturbing works of Renaissance art.

Pensive skeleton

Pensive skeleton


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