Rare Book Profile: Andreas Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica.

Andreas Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1st edition: Basel : Johannes Oporinus, 1543; 2nd edition: Johannes Oporinus, 1555) marked the transition of the study of anatomy from medieval to modern.

Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) was born into a family of physicians and pharmacists in Brussels. He studied medicine in Louvain (Leuven) and Paris, and completed his degree in Padua, where he studied dissection. After receiving his degree in 1537 at the age of 22, he became a professor of anatomy at the University of Padua, where he built a reputation for his skill in dissection and for challenging the authority of Galen, the foundation of medical knowledge at the time. He also lectured at the universities at Bologna and Pisa. In 1538, he published a set of six anatomical broadsides, under the title Tabulae anatomicae sex. In 1542 he went to Venice to supervise the preparation of over 200 wood block illustrations for his book on anatomy, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem. He moved to Basel with the blocks and his manuscript to oversee the publication of the Fabrica at the publishing firm of Johannes Oporinus in 1543.

Vesalius dedicated the Fabrica to Emperor Charles V, and an abridged edition, the Epitome, to the Emperor’s son, Philip II of Spain. Shortly after publication, he travelled to Mainz to present a copy of the Fabrica to the Emperor, and became the official physician to the court. When Charles V abdicated the Spanish throne in 1556, Vesalius was granted a lifetime pension and was made a count. In 1559, he moved to Madrid with his wife and daughter to become court physician to Philip II. In 1564, Vesalius’ family returned to Brussels while he went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He died on the return voyage later that year on the Greek island of Zakynthos.

While the Fabrica was not the first anatomical work based on direct observation, its scope and the quality of the illustrations and typography made it hugely influential. Even the decorated initials of the chapter headings depict medical themes. While there is still debate as to the identity of the artist or artists, it is generally accepted that the studio of Titian was involved. The most iconic images in the Fabrica are the “muscle men” from book 2, a series of progressively dissected figures dramatically posed in a landscape. The background landscapes form a panoramic view of the Eugenean Hills, a resort area near Padua. A revised edition was published in 1555, and Vesalius worked to prepare a third edition which was never published.

The Health Sciences Library’s Rare Materials Collections contains both the first and second editions of De Humani Corporis Fabrica. The first edition is bound in black, yellow, and blue marbled paper-covered boards, with author and title hand-lettered on a plain white vellum spine. It has been damaged over the years, and has had extensive repairs made to the first and last few pages. The second edition of 1555 is in much better condition, and was bound in blind-tooled alum-tawed pigskin over wooden boards with brass clasps shortly after publication. The first edition was given to the library by Dr. James J. Waring, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. The second was part of a purchase from the collection of anatomist and bibliophile Herbert McLean Evans in 1930 by a group including Dr. Waring, and presented to the Denver Medical Society. It came to the Health Sciences Library in 1982, when the Society dissolved its rare books collection.

Both editions will be on display on November 19, 2014 from noon to 2 p.m. in the 3rd-floor Reading Room of the Health Sciences Library as part of the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Vesalius’ birth. The library’s newly acquired 2014 translation of the Fabrica will also be on display. The featured speaker is Dr. Gabriel Finkelstein, Associate Professor in the Department of History at CU Denver, on Vesalius at 500. Dr. William Arend, Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the School of Medicine Division of Rheumatology, will recognize Dr. Charley Smyth, in whose honor the translation was purchased. A reception will follow with refreshments, including birthday cake.

Rare materials are available to individuals or groups by appointment on Wednesday mornings and Thursday afternoons, or at other times by arrangement. To schedule an appointment, contact Emily Epstein, emily.epstein@ucdenver.edu or 303-724-2119.

[Emily Epstein, Cataloging Librarian]


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New Acquisition: The Fabric of the Human Body, a new translation of Vesalius’ masterwork

2014 marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of physician and anatomist Andreas Vesalius.  Vesalius was a lecturer in anatomy and surgery at the University of Padua. He was an advocate for the study of human anatomy through dissection of human bodies, rather than animals. His great work, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, published in 1543 when he was 28 years old, was not only scientifically revolutionary, but a landmark in printing and art as well.

The Health Sciences Library’s Rare Materials Collection has both the first edition of 1543 and the second edition of 1555. The Fabric of the Human Body, a new annotated translation and facsimile of both editions was recently added to the collection. The two-volume set was purchased with funds from the Charley Smyth Library Endowment, established with the Library by the Anschutz Medical Campus Retired Faculty Association, in memory of colleague and friend Dr. Charley Smyth, former Head of the School of Medicine Division of Rheumatology.

Northwestern University Professors Emeritus Daniel H. Garrison and Malcolm H. Hast spent more than twenty years translating the texts of both the 1543 and the 1555 editions from Latin into English. It is the first translation to include both editions. Modern anatomical terms have been added parenthetically to clarify the sixteenth-century text. Extensive footnotes provide further explanation for modern readers, with highlighting to denote differences between editions. The annotations also incorporate newly discovered notes in Vesalius’ handwriting for a planned but unpublished third edition.

A new font based on the beautiful typeface used in the original publication, Basel Antiqua, was designed specifically for this translation. The illustrations and decorated initials were reproduced using high resolution digital scans, with thumbnails inserted in the margins of the text to help orient the reader.


The Health Sciences Library will celebrate the birth of Andreas Vesalius on Wednesday, November 19th from 12 to 2 p.m.  in the Library’s Reading Room.  Dr. Gabriel Finkelstein, Associate Professor of history at the University of Colorado Denver will give a lecture, “Vesalius at 500.” The 1543 and 1555 editions of De Humani Corporis Fabrica and The Fabric of the Human Body will be on display, and light refreshments will be served.

[Emily Epstein, Cataloging Librarian]