Historiated Initials from the De humani corporis fabrica by Andr

The medical profession has a long and fascinating history, and if you are interested in learning more don’t miss this upcoming event at the New York Academy of Medicine. The program will take place on Wednesday, March 11, 2015 from 6:00 PM to 7:30 PM and is entitled: Fifth Annual History of Medicine Night: Insights from the Early Modern Period. Topics include sex change, philosophy of primary care, epidemics, and hand surgery. In addition I will have the honor of speaking on one of my favorite topics, the historiated initials in Andreas Vesalius’ masterwork, De Humani Corporis Fabrica.

Historiated initials got their name because they tell a story. They have their origin in the ornamentation of manuscripts from remote antiquity. When printing was invented and books became popular it became the fashion to decorate the first letter of a paragraph, page, or chapter with an elaborate picture which often contained subjects and scenery interlaced with the letter, and told a story related to the text. Such is the case with Andreas Vesalius’s book, published in Basel in 1543 with a second edition in 1555.

In preparation for my talk I prepared a handout in PDF format which has reproductions of every historiated initial in the Fabrica, including initials from both the 1543 and 1555 editions.  I had the opportunity to peruse the original books this past summer and take photos of each letter. The scenes in the letters depict events in the lives of medical students, doctors, and anatomists in the 16th Century. For example, in the historiated “O” shown above a group of medical students depicted as naked boys (putti in Italian) are preparing bones by boiling them in a large cauldron. 

To my knowledge this is the first time all initials have been assembled in one place other than the books themselves, and I hope this document can serve as a resource to scholars and anyone interested in medicine as it once was. Look closely at the scenes and you will find criminals being cut down from the gallows (Initial “L”), anatomists stealing bodies from the cemetery (Large Initial “I”), animals being prepared for dissection (Initials “Q” and “T”), an ancient apparatus for setting fractures (Initials “E” and “F”), and many others.  I hope you enjoy looking at this PDF, and I look forward to seeing you at History Night!

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Get the schedule for the Fifth Annual History of Medicine Night here.

Images in this post and PDF are courtesy of the New York Academy of Medicine.

Related posts:

The Enigma of the Historiated “V” in Vesalius’s Fabrica
Getting Vesalius’s Goat
Jewish History in Vesalius’s Fabrica
Arion Triumphant