This project (2018-1-ES01-KA203-050606) has been funded with support from the European Commission.
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This project has been funded with support from the European Commission.
This web site reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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Educational Material

Unit 7 - Anatomy Book and Instruments for the Construction of Anatomy


1.1 Topic Description
Historians indicate the year 1543 as a turning point in the history of anatomy. The publication of De humani corporis fabrica by Andreas Vesalius, accompanied by magnificent illustrations, is, in fact, unequivocally a break with previous anatomical treatises. With this book, Vesalius proposes a revision and rewriting of the Galenic anatomy that had dominated the teaching of this discipline, both in the Christian and then Muslim East, and in the Latin West.

Texts such as De Juvamentis Membrorum - a medieval compendium of the De usu partium corporis humani di Galen (129/130-200/216), and above all the Anothomia corporis humani (1316) by the Bolognese Mondino de Luzzi- read, studied and memorized by entire generations of students of late medieval and Renaissance Europe, were marked by the anatomical model of Galen.

At the beginning of the 1300s Mondino, professor at the University of Bologna, undertook the direct and methodical study of the bodies, thus giving rise to the first school of human anatomy in Italy and Europe. However, it did not lead to the uncoupling of anatomy from the concepts that were dominant then, as it was strongly influenced by Galen, Aristotle and Avicenna (De medicina). However, 1316 Mondino's work, Anathomia, was adopted for over two hundred years by Italian and foreign universities.

In the Fabrica, Vesalius aims to correct the mistakes handed down for over a millennium by the Galenic anatomical tradition. The main tools of this radical revision are the art of dissection and a meticulous reading of Galen's books. The practice of dissection is already attested in Italy since the early years of that century.

The first testimony can be found in the cited Anothomia of Mondino. The author recalls, in 1315, that he dissected the bodies of two women.

Vesalius operation in the Fabrica seems to be the culmination of a process whose methodological and technical premises had been laid down at least a couple of centuries earlier, while the reversal of the order of priority between text and dissection, between reading and observation, constitutes a revolutionary innovation.

This conception of visual communication that manifests itself in Renaissance anatomical culture came to full maturity in Vesalius work: in Fabrica he proclaimed the need to figure anatomy, he used images designed to promote the aesthetic reception of knowledge about the human body, he thought of images as a tool to expand the circuit of diffusion of anatomical knowledge outside the medical area and the university world. Here, all the insights, suggestions and intentions enunciated in the previous literature are put to good use in the realization of the figures.

The illustrations of Fabrica, which are among the highest achievements of the sixteenth-century xilography, are extremely effective both from the scientific point of view, and from the artistic point of view. Philosophers, painters, humanists, theologians and intellectuals were the readers of anatomical treatises throughout the modern age.

In 1538 Vesalius published Tabulae anatomicae sex, a typographic product resulting from the same need to figure out the anatomy, to map the human body and to provide - thanks to the use of the image - a didactic tool for rapid and effective consultation.

The Tabulae work consist of six loose sheets, each of which contains a xilograph and a text arranged above and on the sides of the illustration. The first three figures, drawn by Vesalius himself, are more anatomical-physiological diagrams than anatomical images in the strict sense, and represent the liver with the portal vein and the male and female reproductive apparatus, the path of the vena cava, the heart with the artery magna (aorta) and its ramifications. The other three plates, instead, were drawn by Jan Steven van Calcar, who had copied from life a skeleton reconstructed by Vesalius in January 1537.

These figures play an educational role for doctors, surgeons and students. But they were created to imprint in memory information about the body represented both in the minds of those who may have witnessed the dissection, as well as those who have never had such an opportunity.

Artistic Anatomy was born during Hellenism because of the need of painters and sculptors to represent the human body. One of its aims is to study proportions; from the 1400s, painters and sculptors dedicated themselves to it for the realization of their works. The concept that beauty was composed of proportions was well established at the time. Leonardo's tables often contain measurements of human features and their relationships, as in the famous drawing of Vitruvian man (1490 - Venice, Gallerie dell'Accademia).

Leonardo approaches the studies of Human Anatomy through Artistic Anatomy, practiced by some painters of the 1400s, to represent the human body. However, the "marvelous human machine" soon fascinated Leonardo's soul, who moved from the Artistic Anatomy of the surface, of muscles and bones, to the study of the internal organs. He began his dissections in the "Florentine shops", and later in the morgues where authorities sometimes allowed doctors to observe and dissect the bodies of the executed, for research purposes. It was the muscles and bones that initially attracted the artist's attention, as he wrote in the Book of Painting: "the painter must know the anatomy of nerves, bones, muscles and fractures". Above all, Leonardo considered the aesthetic side of anatomical studies; this interest is confirmed by a note in the margin of the sheets, where he wrote of his intention to compose an anatomical treatise and to name it "De Figura Umana" (The Human Figure). His continuous thirst for research in every field of knowledge and his tendency towards absolute perfectionism explain his interest in the observation and study of the human body. Leonardo kept his drawings and comments in detached sheets, notebooks, waiting to organize them in the treatise he designed and which was never printed.

The first painting in which the search for artistic anatomy is visible is the unfinished San Gerolamo, preserved in the Vatican Picture Gallery. Represented with dry but snappy muscles, exposed tendons. The neck and shoulder already reveal certain knowledge of the muscular anatomy. The bust arched behind the clavicles, the plastic gesture of the extended arm, the leg stretched forward, the head, hollowed out and bony, as well as foreshortened in its twist to the right, rendered with great expressiveness, stand out. While contemporary artists, such as Michelangelo, limit themselves to the superficial anatomy, Leonardo extends his research to the deeper parts of the body. In a series of drawings he analyses the internal dimensions of the skull. He dissects and measures the cranial structure with the intention of locating the soul. In the drawings, he offers cross-sections and sections of the cerebral hemispheres depicted layer by layer. He studies the bone head, presenting it at times intact, at times scalped, at times sawn in a sagittal way. The skull is then dissected frontally on one side to highlight the bone cavities: frontal sense at the top, ocular orbit, nasal sense, maxillary sense, oral cavity.

He gave impetus to the Anatomo-Physiology that was developing in those years in Italian universities, studying the movements of the body, the levers that the human musculoskeletal system uses and the forces it produces. A detail that denotes the transition to physiological anatomy, born from the artistic research, is the observation that the muscles increase in volume while shrinking at rest. The concept is taken up in the Book of Painting.

Leonardo resumed his anatomical studies around 1510, after a break of about ten years. Studies in mechanics influenced his late anatomy. The joints of the body are analyzed as semi-articulated joints subjected to the laws of the lever. The systematic use of dissection confronts him with the enormous complexity of anatomical data. He is convinced that every anatomical structure has a precise function: nothing, therefore, should be neglected in the representation. He makes use of innovative illustrative systems already used for machines: from the transparent representation with intact contours to the exploded view, from the view of the body from different points of view to the representation of muscles as lines of force.

The passage from Anatomo-Physiology to Pathological Anatomy is more appreciable in the study of the human body through the different phases. Exposing the differences found in the arteries of young and old, it provides the first detailed description of the characteristics of atherosclerotic disease. It draws the vessels representing their lengthening and thickening, describes their tortuosity.

Vesalius' books, Leonardo da Vinci's drawings and illustrations represent the courageous attempt to go beyond the traditional teaching model centred on the transmission of abstract scientific contents, on doctrinal knowledge, proposing new ways of investigation and methodologies for knowledge, such as direct observation of the human body, the study conducted on the corpse, the description of its parts, vivisection, reworking through drawings, accurate descriptions. In sum, a reversal order of priorities is proposed between theoretical learning and experience. Anatomical text is generated by practice. Dissection embodies a decisive role in the production of anatomical knowledge. The practice of dissecting the human body thus assumes a didactic function.

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