|Prior to the publication of Vesalius's De humani corporis fabrica
in 1543 , the study of anatomy had made slow progress in comparison
with other branches of medicine during the Renaissance. Even the invention
of printing by Johann Gutenberg around 1450 did not result in an immediate
explosion of anatomical texts and illustrations. The importance of
Vesalius's book cannot be understated, for it not only provided the
textual basis for a new scholarly approach to anatomy, it also heralded
the beginnings of anatomical illustration based on direct scientific
observation. Vesalius was, moreover, fortunate in his choice of artist,
for the woodcut illustrations that adorn his great work are notable
not only for their accuracy, but also for their enormous artistic
merit, which set the standard for all anatomical illustration that
In the introductory essay to Mortimer Frank's English translation
of Ludwig Choulant's Geschichte und Bibliographie der anatomischen
Abbildung, the distinguished historian of science, Charles Singer,
usefully divides the history of anatomical illustration into six
discrete periods. According to his scheme, the first phase embraces
a period of almost two millennia, from ancient antiquity to the
immediate precursors of Vesalius.
Little is known about the study of anatomy in the ancient world,
but it is certain that human dissection was carried out around 300
B.C. in the Greek colony of Alexandria in Egypt, where a medical
school flourished for several centuries, and a great library was
formed. In the second century A.D. the Greek anatomical legacy was
codified by Galen (ca. 129-199), whose own writings were firmly
grounded in the Alexandrine tradition. Galen, a Greek physician
practising in Italy, wrote several works on anatomy. Galen's anatomical
observations, however, were based on dissections performed on animals,
usually pigs and apes, which were then indiscriminately applied
to human anatomy.
Following the Arab conquest of Alexandria in 642, many Greek medical
texts came into Arab possession, and were translated and studied.
In this way the medical tradition of the ancients was preserved
during the Middle Ages, but little was added to the canon. The main
obstacle to progress of anatomical knowledge during this period
was the proscription of post-mortem dissections under Islamic law.
To Muslims even the representation of the human body was strictly
forbidden. In the West, the Christian church, too, was strongly
opposed to dissection.
The late Middle Ages witnessed the emergence of universities in
Europe, the earliest being at Bologna in 1158, and Montpellier in
1181. By the end of the thirteenth century major centres for the
teaching of medicine had been established at Bologna and Salerno
in Italy, and at Montpellier and Paris in France. Teaching was based
on Arab sources derived from the Galenic canon, and practical anatomy
was based on the dissection of animals. It was not until the latter
part of the thirteenth century and particularly in the fourteenth
century that the civil and ecclesiastical laws governing dissection
were relaxed. In 1303 the first recorded judicial autopsy was carried
out in Bologna, and by the end of the century public dissections
were being legally performed at Venice, Florence, and Montpellier.
In 1405 Bologna was permitted to perform periodic public dissections,
while Padua, destined to become the leading centre of anatomy in
the sixteenth century, received official sanction for the same in
Despite the fact that dissections were fairly widespread by the
mid-fifteenth century, progress in anatomical illustration was negligible.
Typically, anatomical figures consisted of crude schematic drawings,
often based on astrological factors , but certainly not on scientific
observation, and were, therefore, practically useless as serious
teaching instruments. At the same time anatomical dissections were
also being carried out in private by artists, sometimes in conjunction
with anatomists, but such activities were preparatory exercises
for paintings, not contributions to the corpus of anatomical illustration
as a scientific discipline.
This was the situation in the mid-fifteenth century, when Gutenberg's
revolutionary invention transformed the world of scholarship and
learning. In the first fifty years of printing, many medical texts
were issued, but few of them were illustrated. The first medical
text with illustrations of any significance was Johann de Ketham's
Fasciculus medicinæ, printed at Venice in 1491. And
yet the anatomy displayed in this frequently reprinted work was
medieval in character, and did little to advance knowledge of the
The second phase in the history of anatomical illustration was
a very short period of approximately twenty years, beginning in
1521 with the works of Giacomo Berengario da Carpi, and ending in
1543 with the publication of Vesalius's landmark work. This phase
is characterised by attempts at a more scientifically based anatomy,
exemplified by Berengario da Carpi's works on anatomy which marked
a departure from the purely schematic and allegorical towards a
more accurate rendition. To this category also belong the illustrations
contained in the works of Dryander, whose woodcuts of the head achieve
a hitherto unprecedented verisimilitude .
Anatomical illustrations in books from this period were exclusively
woodcuts, which reached a remarkable degree of perfection, particularly
among Italian and German practitioners. An artistic conception of
formal beauty and aesthetically pleasing images emerged, that became
the norm for anatomical illustration, and which endured for several
centuries. Characteristics of the prevailing artistic schools of
the day are often evident, as, for example, the Mannerist touches
of Charles Estienne's anatomy . Another feature of
illustrations of this period was the tendency towards representing
the whole body rather than its individual parts.
The next phase covers over eighty years, and extends from Vesalius
to 1627. Enormous increase in anatomical knowledge, thanks mainly
to Vesalius, was made during this period. The correction of errors
and new anatomical discoveries were reflected in splendid illustrations,
frequently displayed against a landscape background. Figures displaying
skeleton and muscle were shown in idealized form, and appear not
as cadavers, but as living human beings striking dramatic poses
. The remarkable achievement of the Italian school
of anatomy was soon imitated both within and beyond Italy. Vesalius's
illustrations were widely copied, though probably in respectful
acknowledgment of their merit, rather than as blind acts of plagiarism.
The anatomical writings of Valverde, Geminus, du Laurens, and Bauhin,
all represented in Anatomia, were among the most prominent
of the Vesalian imitations.
Just as the art of the woodcut was reaching its apogee, copper
plate engraving and etching, with its greater potential for more
accurate, detailed representation, began to replace woodcuts as
the principal medium of anatomical illustration.
The primacy of copper plate illustration prevails into the fourth
phase of anatomical illustration, a period of more than a century,
between 1627 and 1730s. It begins with the posthumous publication
of Giulio Casseri's Anatomia anatomicæ, a projected
anatomy of the entire human body; the plates were reissued in 1631
to illustrate Spiegel's De humani corporis fabrica libri decem.
Frequently grotesque , they represent
the first original set of anatomical illustrations to be published
Towards the end of the seventeenth century scientific accuracy
was sometimes sacrificed for artistic considerations. The plates
of Bidloo's anatomy , drawn by Gérard de Lairesse,
are magnificent works of art, and yet contain numerous anatomical
inaccuracies. They were issued, moreover, with the slimmest of texts
(this deficiency was partially remedied in Cowper's unauthorized
version of the Lairesse illustrations, issued with a new, more detailed
text). This period also saw the publication of Aselli's De lactibus
(1627), which not only announced the discovery of the lacteal vessels,
but also represents the first attempt to use colour to distinguish
different parts of the body - in this instance the lacteal vessels
from the blood vessels and viscera, with the aid of a colour-printed
chiaroscuro woodcut. It was also during this period that Eustachi's
splendid engraved plates, lost for 162 years, were rediscovered
and issued for the first time in 1714 .
The fifth period, from 1730s to 1778, is dominated by the commanding
figure of Albinus, doyen of the Leiden medical school, who like
Vesalius, established a new method of anatomical illustration. Albinus's
anatomical figures are composites of masses of observations .
He insisted on the greatest exactness of detail, attained through
the use of various measuring instruments and painstaking draughtsmanship.
In order to achieve this end, he employed a great artist, Jan Wandelaar,
to execute the drawings under his close supervision. The resulting
plates, combining great scientific accuracy with artistic accomplishment,
became the new norm eventually replacing the Vesalian images that
had been the mainstay of anatomical illustration for over two hundred
years. Albinus's methods soon spread beyond the borders of the Netherlands,
particularly to Britain, where they are evident in the plates prepared
by Jan van Rymsdyk for William Hunter's Anatomia uteri humani
gravidi (1774)  and for the anatomical
atlases of others. The vital role of the artist, rather than the
anatomist alone, begins to be increasingly acknowledged, and the
names of the artist and even the engravers sometimes feature prominently
on title pages or in preliminary matter.
The introduction of colour-printing begins in this period, but
Gautier d'Agoty's striking life-size mezzotint plates are no more
than curiosities that add little to anatomical knowledge .
The great potential of colour in the methodology of illustration
was not fully realised until a later period.
The publication in 1778 of Soemmering's De basi encephali
 marks the beginning of the final phase, which extends
to the mid-nineteenth century. During this period collaboration
between anatomist and artist is at its closest. Indeed, many anatomists,
such as Soemmering, Charles Bell, Camper, Carswell, and Maclise,
were also accomplished artists and drew their designs, while John
Bell both drew and engraved many of his. Scarpa employed and trained
his own artist, Faustino Anderloni, and supervised his work.
A characteristic of this phase is a greater shift towards the anatomy
of the internal organs, in the light of new discoveries made as
a result of more specialized study. At the same time new methods
for preserving anatomical specimens were devised. The period 1770-1790
saw great advances in the study of the lymphatic system, largely
under the impetus of Mascagni, who alone discovered about fifty
percent of the lymphatic vessels now known. In Britain Hewson, Cruikshank,
and Sheldon were also active in the field of lymphatics and made
valuable contributions to the subject.
The introduction of colour plates brought enormous benefit to anatomical
illustration, especially in certain branches of medicine. It is
a fortunate coincidence that around the time that colour illustration
was becoming widespread, great progress was being made in dermatology
and pathology. In a work that laid the foundation of modern dermatology,
Willan chose colour-printed stipple engraved plates to demonstrate
various skin disorders in vivid detail, and in so doing produced
beautiful illustrations of an unattractive subject .
Colour could not only highlight distinct parts of the body; it could
also show changes in natural states brought about by morbid conditions.
In their pathology textbooks Carswell , and Bright
 used colour plates to great effect, and contributed
greatly to knowledge of morbid anatomy.
Other changes in technology brought considerable advantages to
anatomical illustration. The mechanization of printing in the nineteenth
century, together with the invention and development of lithography,
meant that texts and illustrations could be mass produced, and widely
distributed through networks of publishers and booksellers. By the
mid century lithography had all but replaced intaglio processes
as the principal method used for anatomical illustration. With the
introduction of chromolithography in the 1830s, anatomical illustration
reached perhaps its highest level in the multi-volume atlas of Bourgery
Twentieth-century printing techniques, particularly photographic
processes, along with the more advanced computer imaging, continued
to bring scientific advances in the knowledge of anatomy. Nevertheless,
the period covered by Anatomia, the sixteenth to the nineteenth
centuries, continues to be of considerable interest as a record
of the tremendous progress in both the understanding of, and the
depiction of human anatomy. Despite their inaccuracies these works
will remain as highpoints in both anatomy and art, and will continue
to be studied and admired as testaments to their time and their