Vesalius’s De humani corporis Fabrica
Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis Fabrica of 1543 is probably the most beautiful anatomical atlas produced in the 16th century. Vesalius, the 28 year old professor of anatomy at the University of Padua at the time of the book’s publication, spared no expense in hiring extraordinary craftsmen to create the woodblocks to illustrate his monumental atlas and we know that some of the drawings that were transferred to the blocks were made by Jan Stephen van Calcar, a Venetian artist working in Titian’s studio, although the block cutters themselves are unidentified. Despite Vesalius’s attempt to protect the images in the Fabrica through the acquisition of various royal privileges, they immediately became extremely popular and were widely reproduced in many other publications.
In 1932, Samuel Lambert, who had been the Academy's 32nd president, began raising money for the publication of the Icones Anatomicae, an edition of all of the images from the two editions of the Fabrica (1543 and 1555) and some of Vesalius’s other publications. Lambert studied and wrote about the historiated initials that appeared in the Fabrica, and a colleague suggested to him that the original wood blocks might still survive. He wrote to Dr. Willy Wiegand of the Bremer Press in Munich, asking if he would do some investigation. Wiegand visited the library at the University of Munich and a search turned up a box containing 227 of the blocks used in the production of the Fabrica and its companion publication from 1543, the Epitome (but none of the blocks for the initials). In light of this felicitous discovery, Lambert approached the Academy with the idea of publishing an edition of the rediscovered images.
Lambert envisioned a very ambitious and beautiful book, which is described at length in the Prospectus. After the discovery of the blocks, Lambert began raising money for a Library Publication Fund, and amassed over $15,000 from various donors by the end of 1932. The University of Munich agreed to co-publish the volume with NYAM, and Willy Wiegand, the head of the Bremer Press, was engaged as the printer. As we can see from the information in the Prospectus, no expense was spared in the creation of the book. Fine handmade paper with a special watermark was created especially for the volume, and photographic reproductions of the missing blocks were made and subtly marked in the descriptive tables.
Four hundred copies of the Icones Anatomicae were printed and sent to NYAM; an additional 295 copies were printed for the European market. At the same time, a small number of portfolios of 40 loose plates, the Tabulae Selectae, was printed as well. For years, individuals wrote to the NYAM librarians requesting individual images from the Tabula, which were sold at a very modest price. The portfolio was also available as a complete set. The title pages of both the 1543 and the 1555 editions of the Fabrica are included in the Tabula, along with a number of the skeletons, muscle men and flayed men that are some of the Fabrica’s most iconic images.
Sadly, both the woodblocks and all of the copies of the German edition of the Icones were destroyed during the bombing of Munich in the summer of 1944, so NYAM has the distinction of being the organization that was responsible for the final inking and printing of the beautiful 16th century blocks.
Photography by Ardon Bar-Hama courtesy of George Blumenthal.