- The Fabrica of Andreas Vesalius: A Worldwide Descriptive Census, Ownership, and Annotations of the 1543 and 1555 Editions ed. by Dániel Margócsy, Mark Somos, and Stephen N. Joffe
One of my favorite things to do with history of science and medicine courses is to take students to my university's rare book collection so they can see and touch the landmark texts that we discuss in class. Although students enjoy seeing astronomical works by Nicholas Copernicus and Galileo Galilei, anatomical atlases are always the most popular part of these tours, and Andreas Vesalius's De humani corporis fabrica is a perennial student favorite. The stunning woodcut illustrations of the bones, muscles, and internal organs always provoke gasps of wonder.
The Fabrica is a book that has made an immediate and lasting impression on readers since it came off Johannes Oporinus's press in Basel over five hundred years ago. But how have responses to the book changed over time? In modern scholarship, Vesalius is the central figure in the "anatomical renaissance" of the sixteenth century, but what did sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century readers make of the book and its author? In order to answer these questions, Dániel Margócsy, Mark Somos, and Stephen N. Joffe have tracked down all surviving copies of the 1543 and 1555 editions of the Fabrica and studied the marginal [End Page 294] annotations of the original readers. They found 308 copies of the first edition and 422 of the second (p. 1), and they were able to examine all but a small number that are held by private collectors. They found that about 70 percent of surviving copies have at least one manuscript annotation, and over 40 percent have annotations on more than five pages (p. 4).
Based on their analysis of annotated Fabricas, the authors see the following four patterns in early readers' responses to the text. Their first and most striking finding is that while most twenty-first-century readers, like my students, are more impressed by the illustrations than the dense Latin text, the opposite was true of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century readers. Almost everyone who made notes in their copy of the Fabrica made them on the text. It was rare to comment on or mark the images. When readers did comment on the illustrations, their notes often indicate confusion. In a period in which a "visual language" of anatomy was still emerging, the images in the Fabrica were far less clear than they appear to modern readers.
The second point the authors make is that most readers were "sporadic." They made notes on relatively few pages of the book and left most unmarked. While this does not mean that they did not read the pages where they left no notes, it suggests that many readers sought out specific topics rather than reading the book straight through from cover to cover. The third point is that most annotations are "bookish," that is, readers compared Vesalius's text to other texts, rather than to direct observations of cadavers. And most of these "bookish" annotators compared Vesalius to Galen and other ancient writers. Finally, based on the frequency of annotation, it appears that the most fascinating parts of the Fabrica to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century readers were the sections on reproduction.
While the large sample allows the authors to see larger patterns and trends in readers responses, the authors also give us a keen sense that each reader and each book is unique.
The book is peppered with wonderful anecdotes about readers and reading. My favorite was that the civic authorities in seventeenth-century Lindau restricted access to the copy of Vesalius in the town library because they believed that women were "behaving impertinently with the Fabrica," probably by looking at the nude male figures (p. 112). Apparently an interest in the reproductive organs was acceptable and even admirable in male scholars but...