By a neat historical coincidence, two of the founding texts of modern Western science were published in the year 1543. One was Nicolaus Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (‘On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies’). The other was Andreas Vesalius’ De Fabrica Humani Corporis (‘On the Fabric of the Human Body’). We will look briefly at the former in a few moments. Our chief concern in this chapter, however, is with the little world of man, rather than the grander one of the cosmos. Vesalius’ book offered a radical new approach to human anatomy. Poised somewhere between art and technology, between religion and science, its extraordinary anatomical illustrations still dazzle and stun the eye centuries later, effortlessly bewitching the viewer after decades of photography, cinema, and computer-aided representation.2 With his depictions rapidly plagiarised and reproduced all across Europe, Vesalius had effectively invented the new image of the interior body. And, while the illustrations were clearly works of painstaking skill, they were in fact remarkable purely by being visual representations (skilled or otherwise), rather than unverified textual assertions. In past decades and centuries, anatomy books had been largely or entirely unillustrated works. By contrast, Vesalius’ book aimed to show, rather than merely say. In our time, that attitude is a seemingly axiomatic principle of the scientific method. But in Vesalius’ era, his attempt to demonstrate past errors by re-examination of present and actual bodies was a surprisingly controversial, if not outrightly bizarre notion.
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