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Reviewed by:
  • Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Botany and Anatomy by Sachiko Kusukawa
  • Daniel Brownstein, Ph.D.

illustrations, print culture, history of the book

Sachiko Kusukawa. Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Botany and Anatomy. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2012. xvii, 331 pp., illus., $45.00.

Rather than use “the book of nature” in a metaphorical sense, Sachiko Kusukawa makes a compelling case that illustrated books of anatomy and botany similarly directed attention to material structures of nature in sixteenth-century Europe. Showing that illustrated books stand in a complex relation to the practices they record, she argues in this beautifully produced volume that authors adopted engraved images to define “nature” as a material form of evidence in distinctly modern ways.

Kusukawa shows how the assembly of books restored the premium ancient writers placed on “seeing for oneself [autopsia]” in ways “integral to the Renaissance enterprise of reviving classical knowledge” (125). She argues that images in botany and anatomy texts after 1530 delineated natural structures both to resolve debates of translation and to synthesize observations by which natural structures “became visible” (257) in ways independent from stylistic shifts of art. Kusukawa demonstrates that naturalists defended their right to illustrate their work with the fixed outlines, volumetric shading, and delineation of wood and copper engravings, thus mediating their first-hand observations through printed form. Her argument extends the classic thesis of William Ivins that “exactly reproducible pictorial statement[s]” rationalized nature (Prints and Visual Communication, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1969, 23–24, 46). Her attention to how authors integrated images to create arguments rooted in observations unpacks Ivins’s claim and extends his argument in at least three ways: by demonstrating the investment of a northern European milieu in securing privileges for prints to make knowledge claims in their illustrated books; by showing the value of the precision with which engraved images could embody synthetic observations; by highlighting the [End Page 496] common attention to preserving lifelike design both in commentary devoted to botanical images and anatomists’ attention to deploying lifelike images of natural bodily structures.

Kusukawa argues that naturalists and anatomists both synthesized perceptions by appealing to the natural structures they observed: both cast their work as a form of research, deploying images to promote nature’s legibility even in cultures skeptical of images’ authority. The impact of these books revised the “assumptions and presuppositions for such a pictorial knowledge among university-educated physicians,” (21) who viewed images as valuable “sites for viewing nature” (113). Visual arguments in the text mediated by single-line engravings provided a form of modernity in the printed book that distanced it both from mechanical expertise and from the rhetorical model. Kusukawa claims that the use of images as the “visualization of a method of identification” (111–13, 143) presented “laws of nature” (105) that Andreas Vesalius refined in his writings on human anatomy. Vesalius, often cited as a crucial figure in medical modernity, learned from botanists’ how to use woodcuts as versatile media to synthesize observations, relating hidden structures of the human body to one another by modulated shading, letter-punch, cut-away views, and sequential images. This allowed Vesalius to make analogous critical arguments about differences between animal and human anatomy that revealed his own surgical expertise in the manner of botanists’ illustrated books. She argues that the precedent of botanists like Fuchs encouraged Vesalius to picture body parts “according to nature [secundum naturae]” by a similar “pictorial argument” (227), leading Vesalius to deploy illustrations first in university lectures and then in books as a way to “delineate” the “natural form” of human from animal anatomy. His books included hundreds of carefully situated images with an abundance of detail, unlike earlier anatomical treatises (192–95). Vesalius invested energy and funds producing engravings for De humani corpris fabrica (1543) to explain relations between body parts by expanding the role of images to a “visual commentary” on skeletal, muscular, and venous anatomy. He did so with such authority that it became “inconceivable” not to use images in anatomy, irrevocably changing anatomical expertise (233ff.).

The evidence Kusukawa assembles departs...


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pp. 496-498
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