Vesalius’ Fabrica: The Aims of the New Census

by Dániel Margócsy (Hunter College – CUNY), Márk Somos (Yale University), Stephen Joffe (The Joffe Foundation)

Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica is one of the milestones of European printing history. Its impact is without doubt: it revolutionized the history of anatomy and established a new norm for illustrated scientific books. Historians have studied extensively Vesalius’ tangled relationship with the Galenic tradition, and his complex visual strategies in picturing the body. Yet we know very little about how the Fabrica was received by the contemporary public and posterity. Many still assume that this volume was designed for the cursory consumption of Emperor Charles V with exquisite illustrations to secure the author the coveted position of courtly physician, and therefore was printed in relatively small numbers. It is supposed to be one more “book that nobody read.” As Owen Gingerich showed in his Copernican census, in which he examined the readership of the De revolutionibus in the sixteenth century, so are we hoping to develop a worldwide census of the 1543 and 1555 editions of the Fabrica to assess the responses of readers in the centuries past. We are building on the earlier work of Horowitz & Collins and Cockx-Indestege, as well as the more recent national censuses that Charreaux and Van Wijland, and Nierzwicki have been doing for France and Poland. Our work in the past year has uncovered copies across the globe from Buenos Aires and Saõ Paulo to Sapporo and Beijing.

From this research, it has become absolutely clear that the Fabrica was designed to reach a relatively large public. Our census has so far found over 280 copies of the 1543 edition and some 370 copies of the 1555 edition. These numbers are quite impressive for an early modern atlas, and even if we estimate a rather optimistic 50% survival rate, indicate a substantial print run. In the 17th and 18th centuries, illustrated works of natural history and anatomy were rarely printed in more than 500 copies. Even more importantly, some 63% of the copies are annotated, helping us reconstruct the reading habits of several hundred former owners of the Fabrica.

Portrait of Vesalius with Annotations by Erasmus Flock. Andreas Vesalius. De humani corporis fabrica. Basel: Oporinus, 1543, *6v. Koblenz: Bibliothek des Staatlichen Görres-Gymnasiums.

Portrait of Vesalius with Annotations by Erasmus Flock. Andreas Vesalius. De humani corporis fabrica. Basel: Oporinus, 1543, *6v. Koblenz: Bibliothek des Staatlichen Görres-Gymnasiums.

Some annotators pay little attention to the Fabrica’s text, make doodles, unrelated comments, or somewhat cryptic remarks. One of the Basel copies, for instance, features a beautiful set of flower miniatures on the pages’ margins, in the style of late medieval Books of Hours, while an early reader of the Metropolitan Museum’s copy (once owned by Harold Laski) decided to draw an extra pillar for one of the skeleton men illustrations, providing a resting space for the elbow. A copy in Pécs, Hungary, contains poems by Philip Melanchthon and his fellow Lutheran Paul Eber on Vesalius (there is a Wittenberg interpretation of the Fabrica), as well as suggestions for 16th-century German travelers on what to eat in Italy. And what is one to make of the copy at the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago, which is in pristine condition, except for the singular and strange underlining of the chapter heading on the hymen?

Yet the overwhelming majority of annotations focus on Vesalius and his arguments. Several readers record a biography of the author, often paying special attention to his mysterious death. Others hope to explain Vesalius’ genius by constructing an astrological chart for him. Trained by Rheticus in Wittenberg, the Nuremberg physician Erasmus Flock once owned an impressively hand-colored copy of the 1543 edition, now preserved at the Goerres Gymnasium in Koblenz (curiously, his son-in-law Basilius Besler also owned a partially hand-colored copy, now in Moscow). Flock wrote a laudatory poem on Vesalius above the woodcut portrait of the author, and constructed an elaborate astrological diagram below. Two other astrological charts, related to each other but not to Flock’s, also survive in copies in Padova and Jerusalem.

Readers also subject the text and the illustrations to careful scrutiny. They summarize the text and desperately try (and sometimes fail) to understand what the illustrations represent. Countless readers compare Vesalius’ claims with the wisdom of Galen and Hippocrates, some taking the side of the ancients, others embracing the view of the Flemish anatomist. They also make frequent references to Vesalius’ contemporaries and successors, discussing how the Fabrica’s arguments stand up against the discoveries of Fallopio, Colombo, Valverde, Joubert, or Paré. And, significantly, the readers also make their own observations. Thus, in his heavily annotated copy of the Fabrica, the Dutch Jan Viringus, translator of the Epitome, carefully notes that when they were expecting their little Isabelle, he could determine the foetus’ sex by the shape of the belly of his wife, confirming the relevant section of Vesalius.

If readers paid so much attention to the text and illustrations of the Fabrica, religious authorities surely needed to intervene and control such readings. We were surprised to see how many copies, once owned by the colleges of the Catholic orders, are actually censored. The Fabrica was incendiary to Catholic authorities for two particular reasons: it was published by a Protestant publisher, Johannes Oporinus of Basel, and it contained naturalistic, and therefore licentious, images of the genitalia. Both needed to go. The name of Oporinus in the front matter and in the colophon is frequently eradicated, and several copies cover the muscle men’s reproductory organs in copious amounts of black ink. The text is untouched. Even Catholic readers could learn about sexual reproduction as long as they didn’t know what the actual organs look like.

Our census is progressing well, and we have already collected complete bibliographic information on several hundred copies of the 1543 and 1555 editions. Yet more work remains to be done. If any reader of the HSS Newsletter owns a copy of the Fabrica, or knows of local holdings that may have slipped our attention, we would be grateful if they could alert us at As our research has taught us, online and offline library catalogues are a wonderful invention, but they do not replace the local knowledge that one can only acquire through personal contacts.