De humani corporis fabrica libri septem.

Basel: Johannes Oporinus, 1543.

First edition, first issue, of the work that not only revolutionised the understanding of anatomy, but can be said to mark the beginning of modern science. “The work of Andreas Vesalius of Brussels constitutes one of the greatest treasures of Western civilization and culture. His masterpiece, the Humani Corporis Fabrica … established with startling suddenness the beginning of modern observational science and research. [The] author has come to be ranked with Hippocrates, Galen, Harvey and Lister among the great physicians and discoverers in the history of medicine. However, his book is not only one of the most remarkable known to science, it is one of the most noble and magnificent in the history of printing. In it, illustration, text and typography blend to achieve an unsurpassed work of creative art; the embodiment of the new spirit of the Renaissance directed towards the future with new meaning” (Saunders and O’Malley, p. 9). “No other work of the 16th century equals it, though many share its spirit of anatomical inquiry. It was translated, reissued, copied and plagiarized over and over again and its illustrations were used or copied in other medical works until the end of the 18th century” (PMM). “Published when the author was only 29 years old, the Fabrica revolutionized not only the science of anatomy but how it was taught. Throughout this encyclopedic work on the structure and workings of the human body, Vesalius provided a fuller and more detailed description of the human anatomy than any of his predecessors, correcting errors in the traditional anatomical teachings of Galen. Even more epochal than his criticism of Galen and other ... authorities was Vesalius’s assertion that the dissection of cadavers must be performed by the physician himself. As revolutionary as the contents of the Fabrica and the anatomical discoveries which it published, was its unprecedented blending of scientific exposition, art and typography” (Garrison-Morton). The more than 200 woodblocks were prepared in Venice under Vesalius' supervision and shipped to Oporinus in Basel with precise instructions as to their placement and letter-keyed captions. The finely drawn and anatomically precise woodcuts, by an unknown artist from the circle of Titian, brought anatomical illustration to a new level of realism. Totally interdependent, text and illustrations must be studied in tandem: some of the marginal notes to the illustrations relate a textual description to several illustrations located in different part of the work, a practice that was wholly unprecedented. “For the first time the pedagogic purpose of illustrations was achieved” (DSB). At the same time, the carefully posed anatomical woodcuts, whose background landscapes when assembled form a panorama of the countryside around Padua, the richly detailed title-page, and the historiated initials showing putti and dwarfs engaged in dissection, surgery, and various acts of medicine or mischief, all provide a sometimes ironical iconographic comment on Vesalius’ text. This is a very good copy of the first issue in an early binding (some copies are known to have been printed later and exhibit minor typographical differences). It is now very difficult to find copies of this great book without significant problems.

Provenance: The physician Franciscus Athenosius [?]; Aurora University; sold by Rootenberg in 2010. On frontispiece, possessor’s notes “Franciscus Athenosijs Doctor Medicus Agregatus” and “Honnoratus Bos[...]”; on p. 1, note of Athenosius; cancelled possessor’s notes, one from 1637, on last page of index and on p. 659. Copy I/P13 in the Census (p. 474).

Several motives underlay the composition and publication of the Fabrica. According to Vesalius medicine was properly composed of three parts; drugs, diet, and ‘the use of the hands,’ by which last he referred to surgical practice and especially to its necessary preliminary, a knowledge of human anatomy that could be acquired only by dissecting human bodies with one’s own hands. Through disdain of anatomy, the most fundamental aspect of medicine, or, as Vesalius phrased it, by refusal to lay their hands on the patient’s body, physicians betray their profession and are physicians only in part.

“Vesalius hoped that by his example in Padua and especially by his verbal and pictorial presentation in the Fabrica he might persuade the medical world to appreciate anatomy as fundamental to all other aspects of medicine and that, through the application of his principles of investigation, a genuine knowledge of human anatomy would be achieved by others, in contrast to the more restricted traditional outlook and the uncritical acceptance of Galenic anatomy. The very word ‘fabrica’ could be interpreted as referring not only to the structure of the body but to the basic structure or foundation of the medical art as well. Thus, Vesalius directed his work toward the established physician, whom he hoped to attract to the study of anatomy as a major but neglected aspect of a true medicine and, no less important, toward those members of the medical profession who were concerned with the teaching of anatomy and might be induced to forsake their long-accepted traditional methods for those proposed by Vesalius. As anatomy was then taught, he wrote, ‘there is very little offered to the [students] that could not better be taught by a butcher in his shop.’

“The Fabrica was also written to demonstrate the fallacious character of Galenic anatomy and all that it implied. Since Galen’s anatomy was based upon the dissection and observation of animals, it was worthless as an explanation of the human structure; and since previous anatomical texts were essentially Galenic, they likewise were worthless and ought to be disregarded. Human anatomy was to be learned only by dissection and investigation of the human body, the true source of such knowledge. Nevertheless it was desirable that human dissection be accompanied by a parallel dissection of the bodies of other animals in order to show the differences in structure and hence the source of Galen’s errors. ‘Physicians ought to make use not only of the bones of man but, for the sake of Galen of those of the ape and dog.’ It was because of Vesalius that Padua became the first great center of comparative as well as of human anatomical studies, a dual interest that continued to develop under his successors Falloppio, Fabrici, and Casserio.

“According to Vesalius, the student or physician ought to carry on these activities himself and should personally dissect the human body … Even the reader of the Fabrica must not be content to accept Vesalius’ descriptions without question but ought to test them by his own dissections and observations. For this purpose the descriptive chapters of the Fabrica are frequently followed by directions for making one’s own dissection of the part described so as to arrive at an independent conclusion.

“Vesalius regarded the Fabrica as the gospel of a new approach to human anatomical studies and a new method of anatomical investigation. In Padua both the gospel and its explications were presented directly by the author. For those elsewhere it was presented through the Fabrica with its long and complete descriptions, its illustrative and diagrammatic guides to aid recognition of details and to supplement the reader’s possible shortage of dissection specimens, and even its indirect encouragement of body snatching if necessary. The work reflects fully Vesalius’ method of instruction from about the end of 1539 through 1542 …

“The presentation of a new anatomy and anatomical method raised several problems, of which the first was that of terminology. As in the Tabulae anatomicae (1538), Vesalius continued to use terms from several languages but stressed the Greek form wherever possible. If this was not enough for clarity, an extensive description was given to localize the part with reference to other parts, and illustrations of the particular organ or structure were provided. Additionally, as a mnemonic device and for increased comprehension, anatomical structures were related to common objects, the radius, for example, being compared to the weaver’s shuttle and the trapezius muscle to the cowl of the Benedictine monks. Some of Vesalius’ terms are still in use, so that this aspect of his pedagogy plays the same role today as it did in the sixteenth century. Thus the names of two of the auditory ossicles, the incus and malleus, are derived from Vesalius’ description of them as ‘that one somewhat resembling the shape of an anvil [incus]” and “that one resembling a hammer [malleus].’ The valve of the left atrioventricular orifice, the mitral valve, ‘you may aptly compare to a bishop’s miter’ …

“Owing to the larger amount of dissection material available to him, Vesalius was not compelled to follow the traditional pattern of dissection and description originally established by Mondino (1316). Consequently, book I of the Fabrica opens with a description of the bones. This arrangement was desirable since according to Vesalius the bones are the foundation of the body, the structure to which everything else must be related; and in his anatomical demonstrations he was accustomed to sketch the position of the bones on the surface of the body with charcoal in order to orient the students. The fundamental significance of the bones was further indicated by his reference to the femur, for example, as either the bone itself or the entire leg of which the bone was the basic structure. Moreover, the bones are not only supports for the body; since by their structure and formation they assist and control movement, it is necessary to recognize in them a dynamic quality that Vesalius sought to emphasize by the suggestion of movement in the poses of the skeletons …

“In his description of human osteology, the subject of book I, Vesalius made some of his strongest assaults upon Galenic anatomy. He called attention to Galen’s false assertion that the human mandible is formed of two bones and demonstrated the significance of this error as reflecting a dependence upon animal sources. Likewise he pointed to the fact that the Galenic description of the sternum as formed of seven segments is true of the ape but not of the adult human sternum, which has only three. Similarly the ‘humerus, according to Galen, is with the exception only of the femur, the largest bone of the body. Nevertheless the fibula and tibia are distinctly of greater length than the humerus.’ In addition to such criticisms, there is extensive description of osteological detail, which, because much of it was wholly novel, required detailed illustrations, elaborately related by letter and number to the text. Despite some errors of description and occasional references to animal anatomy in the Galenic tradition, this first book represents Vesalian anatomy on the highest level. It concludes with a remarkable chapter on the procedure for preparation of the bones and articulation of the skeleton, since it was essential that a skeleton always be available at the dissection. Such a skeleton is a central figure of the title page.

“As he had done with the bones, so Vesalius endeavored in book II to identify and give the fullest possible description of every muscle and its function … The first two books represent the major Vesalian achievement in terms of accuracy of description and present the most telling blows against Galenic anatomy. In book II Vesalius also most frequently provided chapters dealing with the dissection procedure used to arrive at his conclusions. The description of the vascular system in book III is less satisfactory because of Vesalius’ failure to master the complexities of distribution of the vessels and because of the close relationship of the vascular system to Galenic physiology. Vesalius was compelled to subscribe to this for lack of any other theories. The errors in the Vesalian description of the distribution of the vessels are due to his reliance on Galen, as the only other writer to have attempted such a description in detail, and to the difficulty of discovering anew the entire vascular arrangement in rapidly putrefying human material. Although Vesalius was partly successful, as, for example, in his account of the interior mesenteric and the hemorrhoidal veins, there are many indications that he was compelled to rely for much of his account on the anatomy of animals. This is clearly apparent in the illustration of the “arterial man,” where the arrangement of the branchings of the aortic arch actually illustrate simian anatomy.

“Book IV provides an account of the nervous system. It is introduced by an attempt to clarify and limit the meaning of the word ‘nerve’ to the vehicle transmitting sensation and motion, because ‘leading anatomists declare that there are three kinds of nerve’: ligament, tendon, and aponeurosis. ‘From dissection of the body it is clear that no nerve arises from the heart as it seemed to Aristotle in particular and to no few others.’ Although Vesalius was obliged to accept the Galenic explanation of nervous action as induced by animal spirit distributed through the nerves from the brain, his examination of the optic nerve led him to the conclusion that the nerves were not hollow, as Galen had asserted. ‘I inspected the nerves carefully, treating them with warm water, but I was unable to discover a passage of that sort in the whole course of the nerve.’

“Vesalius accepted Galen’s classification of the cranial nerves into seven pairs even though he recognized more than that number and described a portion of the trochlear nerve. To avoid confusion he declared that he would ‘not depart from the enumeration of the cranial nerves that was established by the ancients.’ Although he was not wholly successful in his efforts to trace the cranial nerves to their origins, and despite some confusion about their peripheral distribution, the level of knowledge in the text and illustrations was well above that of contemporary works and was not to be surpassed for about a generation. Vesalius was more successful in tracing the spinal nerves, but on the whole the account of the nerves must be described as being of lesser quality than some of the other books.

“The description of the abdominal organs in book V is detailed and reasonably accurate. Since he knew of no alternative Vesalius accepted that aspect of Galen’s physiology which placed the manufacture of the blood in the liver. Nevertheless he denied not only that the vena cava takes its origin from the liver but also that the liver is composed of concreted blood. Here his strongest blow against Galen and medieval Galenic tradition was his denial, based on human and comparative anatomy, of the current belief in the liver’s multiple (usually five) lobes. According to Vesalius the number of lobes increased with the descent in the chain of animal life. In man the liver had a single mass, while the livers of monkeys, dogs, sheep, and other animals had multiple lobes that became more numerous and more clearly apparent. This difference once again proved the error of dependence upon nonhuman materials.

“Vesalius also denied the erroneous Galenic belief that there was a bile duct opening into the stomach as well as one into the duodenum. In regard to the position of the kidneys, he had begun to move away from the erroneous view expressed in the Tabulae anatomicae that the right kidney was placed higher than the left. Although this error is illustrated in the Fabrica, the text declares that the reverse could also be true. Despite this partial error of traditionalism. Vesalius denied a second traditional opinion that the urine passed through the kidneys by means of a filter device. The filter theory had also been denied by Berengario da Carpi; but Vesalius went a step further by asserting that the ‘serous blood’ was deliberately selected or drawn into the kidney’s membranous body and its ‘branchings’ to be freed of its ‘serous humor’ in the same way that the vena cava was able to select and acquire blood from the portal vein, and that the excrement was then carried by the ureters to the bladder.

“The book ends with a discussion of human generation and the organs of reproduction. Although Vesalius denied the medieval doctrine of the seven-celled uterus and declared the traditional representation of the horned uterus to result from the use of animal specimens, his description of the fetus and fetal apparatus was of less significance, reflecting, as he admitted, the lack of sufficient pregnant human specimens.

“Book VI describes the organs of the thorax. It is chiefly important for the description of the heart, which Vesalius described as approaching the nature of muscle in appearance, although it could not be true muscle since muscle supplied voluntary motion and the motion of the heart was involuntary. In this instance Vesalian principle bowed to Galenic theory, and recognition of the muscular substance of the heart had to await William Harvey’s investigations in the next century.

“Like all his contemporaries Vesalius regarded the heart as formed of two chambers or ventricles. The right atrium was not considered to be a chamber but rather a continuation of the inferior and superior venae cavae, considered as a single, extended vessel; and the left atrium was thought to be part of the pulmonary vein. According to Galen the ventricles were divided by a midwall containing minute openings or pores through which the blood passed or seeped from the right ventricle into the left, an opinion that Vesalius strongly questioned even though by implication he was casting doubt on Galen’s cardiovascular physiology. ‘The septum of the ventricles having been formed, as I said, of the very thick substance of the heart … none of its pits-at least insofar as can be ascertained by the senses-penetrates from the right ventricle into the left. Thus we are compelled to astonishment at the industry of the Creator who causes the blood to sweat through from the right ventricle into the left through passages which escape our sight.’ Finally Vesalius gave strong expression to his opinion of ecclesiastical censorship over the question of the heart as the site of the soul. After referring to the opinions of the major ancient philosophers on the location of the soul, he continued:

‘Lest I come into collision here with some scandalmonger or censor of heresy, I shall wholly abstain from consideration of the divisions of the soul and their locations, since today… you will find a great many censors of our very holy and true religion. If they hear someone murmur something about the opinions of Plato, Aristotle or his interpreters, or of Galen regarding the soul, even in anatomy where these matters especially ought to be examined, they immediately judge him to be suspect in his faith and somewhat doubtful about the soul’s immortality. They do not understand that this is a necessity for physicians if they desire to engage properly in their art …’

“The seventh and final book provides a description of the anatomy of the brain, accompanied by a series of detailed illustrations revealing the successive steps in its dissection. Until the time of Vesalius, illustrations of the brain and any accompanying text usually stressed the localization of intellectual activities in the ventricles, with perception in the anterior ventricles, judgment in the middle, and memory in the posterior. Sensation and motion were considered the work of animal spirit produced in a fine network of arteries at the base of the brain, the rete mirabile. The existence of the rete mirabile in the human brain had been questioned by Berengario da Carpi. It was now firmly denied by Vesalius, who showed the belief in this organ to have been the result of dissection of animals, since such an arterial network does in fact exist in ungulates. Vesalius was also the first to state that the ventricles had no function except the collection of fluid. Moreover, he denied that the mind could be split up into the separate mental faculties hitherto attributed to it. As a corollary he intimated that although animal spirit affected sensation and motion, it had nothing at all to do with mental activity-in short he suggested a divorce between the physical and mental animal. The discussion of the brain is concluded by a chapter on the procedure to be followed for its dissection and by a final, separate section on experiments in vivisection, derived and developed mostly from experiments described by Galen. The separate treatment of this latter material indicated a recognition of physiology as a discipline distinct from anatomy.

“In the Fabrica Vesalius made many contributions to the body of anatomical knowledge, by description of structures hitherto unknown, by detailed descriptions of structures known only in the most elementary terms, and by the correction of erroneous descriptions. Despite his many errors his contribution was far greater than that of any previous author, and for a considerable time all anatomists, even those unsympathetic to him, were compelled to refer to the Fabrica. Its success and influence can be measured by the shrillness of Galenic apologists, by the plentiful but unacknowledged borrowings of many, and by the avowed indebtedness of the generous few, such as Falloppio. Although Colombo, Falloppio, and Eustachi corrected a number of Vesalius’ errors and in some respects advanced beyond him in their anatomical knowledge, Colombo published his anatomical studies sixteen years after the appearance of the Fabrica, Falloppio eighteen, and Eustachi twenty. Furthermore, they relied heavily upon Vesalius’ work, the detailed nature of which made it relatively easy for others to correct or to make further contributions. Although their accomplishments deserve recognition they were built upon Vesalian foundations.

“More important than the anatomical information contained in the Fabrica was the scientific principle enunciated therein. This was beyond criticism, fundamental to anatomical research, and has remained so. It was not difficult to demonstrate Galen’s errors of anatomy, but such a demonstration was only a means to an end. Its significance lay in the reason for those errors: Galen’s attempt to project the anatomy of animals upon the human body. From time to time others had pointed to Galenic errors, but no one had proposed a consistent policy of doubting the authority of Galen or of any other recognized authority until the only true source of anatomical knowledge—dissection and observation of the human structure—had been tested. With the publication of the Fabrica all major investigators of anatomy were compelled to recognize the new principle, even though at first some paid no more than lip service to it …

“Advanced by the successive occupants of the anatomical chair at Padua (Realdo Colombo, Gabriele Falloppio, and Fabrici), the Vesalian principles were thence diffused through Italy and later throughout western Europe. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, with the exception of a few conservative centers such as Paris and some parts of the Empire, Vesalian anatomy had gained both academic and general support” (DSB).

We know little about how Vesalius wrote his masterpiece. No drafts of the Fabrica survive and we do not have his personal diary about its composition. We can catch a glimpse of the anatomist at work through the correspondence of others, and, more importantly, we do know quite a lot of detail about the process of printing. The illustrations were in all probability designed, at least partly, by [Jan Steven von] Calcar, and the woodblocks were cut in Venice. As Vesalius recounts in the introductory Letter to Oporinus in the Fabrica, the woodblocks were then sent to Basel, the place of publication, on August 24, 1542, together with proof prints of the images to instruct the publisher how to proceed.

“The publisher in Basel was Johannes Oporinus, a professor of Greek. While he had some earlier experience in the field, Oporinus turned to publishing as a full-time career only in 1542 … The Fabrica was the first large-scale illustrated publication of Oporinus. It is not quite clear why Vesalius turned to him for the purpose of publication, but they may have been acquainted for several years. We know that the two of them were on strong and friendly terms, as an obituary of Oporinus notes, Vesalius ‘cum Oporino familiarissime diu est versatus.’ But friendship may not have been the only reason for Vesalius to work with a Swiss printer. Basel was close to the major book fairs, at a central location. Vesalius may have hoped that, unlike Venetian printers, Oporinus would be able to quickly sell a large number of copies the Fabrica in Frankfurt, Leipzig or Strasbourg before other publishers came out with pirated copies. As he complained bitterly, his earlier Tabulae sex had been pirated repeatedly, so this may not have been a baseless fear.

“Vesalius provided extensive instructions for Oporinus on composing the layout of the text and the illustrations. In 1543, he spent several months in Basel with the supervision of the production, probably inserting changes into the text on occasion. Despite Vesalius’ presence, some errors remained. Notably, the pagination is rather erratic throughout the volume, and all the pages between p. 312 and p. 492 have an incorrect page number. The errata list at the end of the volume corrects some, but not all of the typographical errors of the Fabrica. For example, on p. 21, Oporinus prints the word ‘posterior’ instead of ‘anterior’, and this error remains unchanged even in the edition of 1555 …

“The Fabrica was an immediate success. It was available in Venice within a few months, where the anatomist Niccolo Massa quickly read it and wrote a damning report in January 1544. Yet the markets were more favorable to Vesalius than Massa, and the book sold out in Leipzig by the end of the year” (Margócsy, Somos & Joffe, pp. 5-8).

Adams V-603; Choulant-Frank, pp. 178-80; Cushing VI.A.-1; Dibner, Heralds of Science 122; Garrison-Morton 375; Grolier/Horblit 98; Grolier Medicine 18A; NLM/Durling 4577; Norman 2137; PMM 71; Stillwell Science 710. Margócsy, Somos & Joffe, The Fabrica of Andreas Vesalius. A Worldwide Descriptive Census, Ownership, and Annotations of the 1543 and 1555 Editions, 2018. Saunders & O’Malley, The Anatomical Drawings Of Andreas Vesalius, 1982.



Folio (400 x 272 mm), pp. [xii], 659 (i.e., 663), [1], [36], including the famous woodcut title page, full-page portrait of Vesalius, 21 full-page woodcuts (2 folding), approximately 200 text illustrations, fine historiated initials, and woodcut printer’s device on colophon; complete with the 2 double-folded leaves, ‘charta parvas’ (m3), bound vertically and folded from bottom and right, and the second folded leaf (p4) (the second leaf, present here, is lacking in many copies); 5 of the 8 anatomical woodcut figures on m3 have been cut out and superimposed in the appropriate place and coloured in a contemporary hand (title and first few leaves remargined without affecting text, a few paper repairs including the first ‘charta’ leaf, which has been partially strengthened without loss, scattered browning as usual, a few contemporary ownership signatures inked out and offset onto a few leaves). Early plain vellum, red leather label on spine with gilt letters.

Item #5491

Price: $485,000.00