ndreas Vesalius published his famous anatomy book in Basel in 1543: "De humani corpores fabrica libri septem" or "The seven books on the fabric of the human body". The work was based on studies of corpses and skeletons that Vesalius had performed — in particular at St. Innocents' Cemetery of Paris.
The reason for the book's success was not only Vesalius' text and his groundbreaking research; it was also to a large degree due to the splendid illustrations (to the right). The name of the artist is not known but he is thought to have been a pupil of Titian — and probably his most famous pupil, Johan Stefan van Kalkar (Jan Steven van Calcar). At least it is known that Kalkar had created some of the anatomical woodcuts for Vesalius' previous work, Tabulae anatomicae sex from 1538, and even had financed that project.
On this page we will, however, concentrate on the initial letters that accompany the text, and which were produced specifically for Vesalius' books.
They are not dances of death, but they follow the theme of the macabre, and they were published in Basel in the same period as the other alphabets we have studied. So let us take a look at them.
here are 4 big initial letters (I, O, Q and T), which are used to introduce the seven books. Furthermore there are 17 smaller initials with a double border.
The initials were produced specifically for this publication(1) and they all portray little boys (putti), who are performing medical works as described in the book: They are preparing body parts, dissecting bodies and curing people.
The scene to the right shows the dissection of a live pig. It seems atrocious to cut in a live animal, but this method had in fact been recommended already in the 2nd century AD by Galen, who himself dissected monkeys and pigs. The title page of De Fabrica in the lower right corner shows a dog being brought in for dissection. In most of the 1555-editions a goat is brought in along with the dog. In both editions there's a monkey in the lower, left corner. Valverde's anatomy book (see below) featured a monkey and a pig at the top of the frontispiece.
Some of the letters show how these putti use their skills to cure people: On the A a catheter is inserted; on E and F a broken or dislocated leg is straightened. H is a cauterization; I is a childbirth; and V is a bloodletting. These scenes are not intended as instructions but rather as examples of the importance of knowledge of anatomy.
he second edition was set with another and bigger type, and this apparently made it necessary to produce a new and bigger version of the 17 letters. The new initials are 42 × 42 mm and have a single border.
These new letters have the same motives but it can't be Johan Stefan van Kalkar who designed them, for he had died in 1546. The two series are also markedly different. The first series is reminiscent of the many other alphabets with children that were published in Basel: The backgrounds are hatched to fill up the plane, and the busy children are struggling to contain their thickset bodies within the frame. The new letters are more Italian and less rough; the backgrounds are lighter and there is more empty space.
The 4 large initials were reused in the 1555-edition, and at the same time a V was added (picture to the right).
The V shows a contest of music between Apollo and Marsyas the satyr. The Muses were referees, so the resultat was given, and the winner was allowed to treat the loser any way he wanted. Apollo chose to tie Marsyas against a tree and flay him.
At first, this scene doesn't seem to belong among the others (except for the obvious fact that V stands for Vesalius), but in fact the macabre fate of Marsyas is not unlike the treatment that the other "models" in Vesalius' book have received.
Just listen to Ovid's description:
As he shrieked aloud, his skin was stript off from the surface of his limbs, nor was he aught but one entire wound.
Blood is flowing on every side; the nerves, exposed, appear, and the quivering veins throb without any skin.
You might have numbered his palpitating bowels, and the transparent lungs within his breast.
(Ovid: Metamorphoses, Book VI, verses 386-390).
The reader may recall an image of a muscle-man standing with his skin in his hand. However that anatomy book is not by Vesalius, but one of his copyists: Juan Valverde de Amusco's "Historia de la Composicion del Cuerpo Humano" from 1560, and the scene doesn't represent Marsyas, but Saint Bartholomew. On the other hand, the title page for Valverde's 1586-edition from Venice was "adorned" with a satyr's skin (picture to the left).
Another anatomy book, "De re anatomica libri XV" from 1559 also used the motive of Apollo and Marsyas (to the right).
There is also a human skin (maybe a satyr?) hanging on the title page of De Doodt vermaskert.
esides the 17 small letters that were produced for the 1543-edition and the 17 for the 1555-edition, there was one more letter.
This letter was used in both editions, but only a single place in every edition. It was used for book 2, chapter 51, which deals with muscles in the rectum with the headline "De recti intestini musculis" (i.e.: on the muscles in the straight intestine) with the subheadings, "The muscles that raise the anus" and "The muscle that closes the intestine in a ring".
This initial was taken from a series of childrens initials that was a copy of a similar series from 1524, which is attributed to Hans Holbein. The picture to the right shows the original from 1524. Holbein's original L was (among others) used 7 times in »Claudii Galeni Pergameni historiales campi«, 1532, and it's slightly ironic that a letter from a book by Galen was imitated and enlarged in a book by Vesalius — the man who superseded Galen after 1.300 years.
n 1932 Vesalius' original woodblocks were rediscovered at the University Library in Munich in the attic in a wooden box marked "Vesalius". The box contained ca. 230 blocks which was almost all of the woodcuts from "De Fabrica". However, none of the initials were found.
The blocks were in perfect condition and in 1934 another edition of Vesalius appeared: »Icones anatomicae: ediderunt Academia medicinae Nova-Eboracensis et Bibliotheca Universitatis Monacensis«. Unfortunately the blocks perished during the bombardment of Munich in 1944.
On the present site we have already seen how Holbein was ignorant about anatomy, and how the image of the physician in Basel has been copied from Vesalius.
Click on each initial below for further details. I have in particular followed the explanations in Samuel W. Lambert's treatise (see external link below).
It doesn't appear that the initials have been used anywhere else.