Review: The Fabrica of Andreas Vesalius

Apr 15, 2021 | Blog, Publications

Margócsy, Dániel, Somos, Mark & Joffe, Stephen N.  The Fabrica of Andreas Vesalius: A worldwide descriptive census, ownership, and annotations of the 1543 and 1555 editions. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill,  2018, xix + 517 pp.

Book review published in Centaurus.

The Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) and his major work De humani corporis fabrica (1543; rev. ed. 1555) have received plenty of scholarly attention. Particularly the quincentenary of Vesalius’s birth in 2014 occasioned a new series of exhibitions, conferences, and volumes, as well as new translations of the Fabrica. Despite this plethora of output, the impressive work under review, co‐authored by Dániel Margócsy, Mark Somos, and Stephen Joffe, succeeds in shedding new light on the afterlife of the Fabrica. They do so by focussing on a unique corpus of sources: the marginalia in all extant copies of the two authorised editions published by Johannes Oporinus (1507–1568) in Basel. Dispersed among homes, colleges, and libraries across the globe, more than 700 exemplars of the Fabricahave been located and checked for marginalia and other material properties—a Herculean effort accomplished thanks to the diligent work of the editors and the assistance of hundreds of scholars and librarians. The end result is a hefty volume consisting of two parts: the first part analyses the place and content of readers’ marginalia, answering questions about value, ownership, circulation, reading behaviour, engagement with illustrations, and censorship; the second part provides a comprehensive catalogue, listing all known copies of the Fabrica, supplemented with a physical description and information on binding, provenance, and annotations. As such, this book constitutes an essential resource for those studying Vesalius, early modern medicine and anatomy, and the history of the book.

As the authors explain, the Introduction (Part 1) does not provide a comprehensive reception history of the Fabrica, but rather the complex reading history over the past 475 years. The authors caution that annotations are not a direct reflection of the practice of reading, but do make plausible the notion that marginalia take us closest to past reading patterns. Because at least 40% of all extant copies contain extensive annotations, this forms an impressive data set to study how readers engaged with the Fabrica. Analysing possessors’ notes, the Introduction provides chronological surveys of both financial value fluctuations and ownership, supported by helpful graphs and maps. Some attention is also given to the modern Vesalius “cult” and to material characteristics such as bindings and hand‐coloured copies. The authors showcase meticulous scholarship, relating world history events to the exchange and circulation of copies. The results are not particularly surprising, though: because the Fabrica was heavily priced, it was predominantly owned by a narrow elite of physicians and scholars.

The Introduction is most insightful when considering the underlinings, manicules, and other scribbles throughout the Fabrica. Studying these marginalia shows that while modern readers are often in awe of the wonderful images included in the book, early modern readers predominantly focussed on the text. The images were far from self‐evident, and thus in need of annotating and highlighting to properly understand them. Also, the authors show how most readers were bookish and expert in the Ancients, since the majority of marginalia referenced Galen, Aristotle, and Hippocrates instead of contemporary anatomists such as Colombo, Fallopio, and Sylvius. Finally, the authors argue that the typical reader was a “sporadic reader,” focussing, for example, on the chapters discussing the reproductive organs, while ignoring or skipping entire sections on muscles and bones.

The second part is a Catalogue listing all extant copies found today, sorted alphabetically by country and city. It is not the first census of Vesalius’s Fabrica to appear, but offers the most complete inventory to date because the authors also traced previously unknown copies in libraries, auction houses, and private collections—the latter being the most difficult to trace. In addition, the catalogue provides not just a list of places and libraries, but also information on binding, provenance, annotations, and, in some cases, bibliographical references and hyperlinks to completely digitised editions in open access. In times of pandemic, this reviewer has only been able to check one online copy and one hard copy. In both cases, the information provided about physical appearance and annotations was superb. This Catalogue is clearly a crucial resource for anyone researching Vesalius’s Fabrica, because it gives information on the material features seldom found in library catalogues.

In the Introduction, the authors situate their contribution in the historiographical debate between Elizabeth Eisenstein, who famously argued that the rise of the printing press contributed to the fixity and standardisation of knowledge, and Adrian Johns, who argued that the world of print remained highly fluid. Because Margócsy, Somos, and Joffe limited their study to the two official editions of the Fabrica, they ultimately concur with Eisenstein, arguing that the luxurious book standardised anatomical knowledge, creating a “uniform interpretive community” among social elites of the period (p. 132). Unauthorised editions were not included in this study. Indeed, so‐called “spurious” or “pirated” editions—with less glorious bindings and woodcuts—are often frowned upon by scholars and hence under‐studied. Yet if the authors were to publish an inventory of the numerous reprints, smaller editions, and translations of the Fabrica that have appeared since 1543, chances are that a more diverse group of readers would emerge—one with less financial resources, and possibly diverging interests and reading patterns.

Still, The Fabrica of Andreas Vesalius showcases the importance of collaborative work. Margócsy’s, Somos’s, and Joffe’s volume is attractively written and lavishly illustrated with full‐colour photos showing examples of hand‐coloured woodcuts and annotated texts from various Fabrica exemplars. It is not just a must‐have for Vesalius enthusiasts, but is also an important resource for historians of medicine and anatomy, the book and reading, and scholars in early modern material and visual culture.