The anatomical masterpiece by Andreas Vesalius entitled De Humani Corporis Fabrica had two editions, the first in 1543 and the second in 1555. There were many changes in the text and woodcut illustrations, but one of the most mysterious alterations was the redrawing of the title page. Both pages feature a public dissection with Vesalius dissecting a female corpse in a makeshift amphitheater, but the second edition contains numerous small, mostly subtle alterations. One puzzling change in the second edition was the addition of a goat.
In the lower right corner of the title page of the first edition a dog is being led into the dissection scene by a barefoot man with six toes. There are several explanations offered by historians. One is that the dog represents the discredited teachings of Galen, who based his anatomical knowledge on animals. Another is that this unfortunate animal will be publicly dissected after the human dissection is finished.
In the second edition the dog is accompanied by a goat. Is this goat destined for dissection along with the dog, or is there a deeper meaning to his entry onto the grisly scene? I offer an interpretation that fits with other small but significant changes made to the title page of the second edition of the Fabrica.
The first title page was designed in Venice under the direct supervision of Vesalius. The second was cut ten years later in the workshop of the publisher, Johannes Oporinus, on the other side of the Alps in Basel by a different artist. It is likely that Vesalius was not around to supervise this work, as he was now quite busy as a court physician to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. In addition during the years after publication of the first edition the Roman Inquisition was revived, bringing a new atmosphere of fear and repression. These changes could yield the key to differences in the two title pages.
The staff clutched by the skeleton that dominates the scene is transformed into a menacing sickle. The skeleton has numerous anatomical errors that Vesalius would never have tolerated. Vesalius, who was a handsome and dashing figure in the first edition, is now transformed into a dwarf with an enlarged head. The nude male figure to the left has been clothed, and the head of Jupiter below the title cartouche is now a pug-nosed Pan. Topping this off is the new goat entering the scene next to the dog.
Why is the goat introduced on the title page of the second edition of the Fabrica? My interpretation draws upon medieval iconography of the goat as representing Satan which is vividly depicted in numerous artworks including paintings by Goya. The goat as Satan transforms the dissection scene into a Witches Sabbath – a dark ritual over a female corpse presided over by a grinning skeleton with a scythe.
The identity of the artist of the second title page is lost to history, but his reinterpretation of the scene could reveal his feelings about Vesalius’s public dissection, and possibly reflect the views of the Inquisition. Vesalius is cut down to size, the great god Jupiter is dethroned, and the anatomy lesson becomes an invocation of evil. Unfortunately we will never know the truth of Vesalius’s goat, but the Fabrica remains an icon in history – discussed and debated nearly 500 years later.
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This is one of a series of posts celebrating the 500th birthday of Andreas Vesalius, who combined art and medicine to create the masterpiece, De Humani Corporis Fabrica. This post was inspired through conversations with medical historian Mike Nevins. View Mike’s website here.
Both illustrations above were from close-up photographs that I took of copies of the original books in the Rare Book Room of the New York Academy of Medicine that I perused with the help of Arlene Shaner, Reference Librarian for Historical Collections. The New York Academy of Medicine posted a complete title page of the first edition of the Fabrica here.