Sequencing the Fabrica

As you leaf through multiple copies of the Fabrica, you begin to notice that not all illustrations look the same in all the exemplars. Some of them clearly exist in multiple copies because, for instance, the woodblock chipped at one point in the printing process. Others change along a continuum, as the gradual erosion of a block translates to the page. Is it possible to identify, describe, and analyze these variations and create a system, or at least a heuristic method, for sequencing individual copies within the 1543 and 1555 print runs? Would it be possible to determine whether a certain copy was printed early in the process, or if it was one of the last copies to leave the press of Oporinus? Combined with the study of watermarks, and the known provenance information for copies, we could learn a great deal about the distribution and movements of the Fabrica across time and space.

There are methodological questions, of course. Firstly, gradual deterioration isn’t easy to measure. Secondly, the quires of early modern books were often printed independently of each other, and bound together only by the buyer. Printers would stack pages before gathering and binding, shuffle them around, subcontract batches to other printers, and combine pages printed at very different times for other reasons.

Thus, there may well exist copies where the first half of the volume was printed early in the process, while the second half of the volume was printed late. This could be especially true for the Fabrica. It is well known that at least two presses were involved with printing the 1543 edition, working in relative independence from each other, which resulted in a rather haphazard system of pagination. The 1555 edition, in turn, was printed in two batches. The first five books were ready several years before the remaining books went under the press.

These are important challenges, but neither is decisive enough to ab ovo doom a sequencing attempt. Blair Hedges’ Evolutionary Biology Lab has developed promising techniques for quantifying small, incremental changes in print quality. And while mixed pages remain an issue, if one assumes that Oporinus did not follow a complex master plan to completely randomize the pages in both editions, but also collated simply what was printed, then variations in some illustrations in some copies will necessarily reflect the deterioration of the woodblocks. Combined with watermarks and provenance (which have their own methodological issues), it is then reasonable to assume that enough illustrations in enough copies reflect the pattern to warrant a sequencing attempt.

Another strength of this sequencing model is that it is highly falsifiable. Firstly, we have the 1934 Icones anatomicae, a careful printing from the woodblocks in their final stage before their destruction in Munich in World War II. The potential set of features that can allow us to distinguish between various states of the 1543 and 1555 printings is limited to features that are better than, or identical with, the final prints from 1934.

Secondly, our model is self-testing. For instance, if in Copy 1, Illustration 1 is damaged and Illustration 2 is undamaged, while the reverse holds in Copy 2, then we are dealing with mixed pages (or, less likely, we mistook a flaw in the paper or another unrelated feature for print from a damaged woodblock). If no pattern whatever emerges from a large sample of copies and illustrations, it would still have been worth testing our model, as we know from the laudable recent calls for new scientific standards, including reporting negative findings.

So what did we find? Contrary to our skeptical expectations, an initial small sample of 5 illustrations in 30 copies has yielded a consistent sequencing pattern. Let us give just two examples.

For instance, page 108 of the 1543 edition presents three bones of the ulna, in two views each. In some editions, one of these illustrations (the first view of the second bone) shows a chip in the contours of the bone next to the legend M. The Coimbra, Countway 1, 2 and 4, and Rauner 1 copies of the Fabrica show uninterrupted lines, while the Augsburg, Basel, Newberry, Rauner 2, Tours, and Utrecht copies have the break. In the 1555 edition, this illustration is on page 133, and the break shows in all examined copies. The careful 1934 printing confirms that the break remained in the woodblock.

The 1555 edition introduced new illustrations, and new distinguishing features. To illustrate how our model might work for gradual damage, here is the degradation of the bow that ties off the intestinal tract on page 560 (this image is not present in the 1543 edition).


The universe of examined copies, both first and second editions, as well as the 1934 final print, confirm the patterns adumbrated above. Based on the small set we examined so far, and merely illustrated here, the groupings established by sequencing copies on the basis of deterioration in the woodblocks appear to work well.

We will continue to compare copies and illustrations and, in time, write a short article. If you have any suggestions for improving our method, please let us know.

The Mobility of the Fabrica

From the Elbląska Gazeta Internetowa

We visited the Elbląg Municipal Library last week, where we found a highly interesting copy of the 1555 edition. Elbląg (Elbing in German) was an important town and trading post through the early modern period, attracting English and Scottish merchants, and erudite notabilities such as Samuel Hartlib and Ioannes Amos Comenius. It was severely damaged at the end of World War II, yet the old town has undergone restoration since. The impressive church of St Mary now functions as an art gallery, and the late gothic Adoration of the Three Kings altar is worth a visit to the St Nicholas Cathedral.



While the Elblag copy is not annotated, its provenance reveals the typical mobility pattern for Fabricas in the past 450 years. It was once purchased by a private owner, Andreas Morenberg (or Mohrenberg), who then donated it to the local gymnasium, or high school, in 1608. Morenberg, whose family was originally from Wrocław (Breslau), was a city official in Elbląg with a clear interest in cultivating an erudite library. His copy of Plantin’s 1568 Polyglot Bible is also preserved in the Elbląg library.

The Elbląg copy thus belongs to the impressive number of copies that are at the same location today where they were 400 years ago. Path dependence clearly matters for the mobility of these books. If you know where a Fabrica was in 1615, especially if it was in an institutional library, there is a good chance it will be found in the same town in 2015, too.

In the case of the Fabrica, we find that three political events are responsible for setting in motion a good number of the copies. First, in the late eighteenth century, the dissolution of monasteries put a large number of monastic libraries Fabricas on the market. Second, the French Revolution resulted in the nationalization of a large number of copies in religious and aristocratic libraries. And third, the two world wars did not only destroy a good number of copies, but also dispersed private and public collections across Central Europe. Shortly after World War II, the Elbląg copy was also moved to the Toruń University Library, and it took fifty years before it returned to the city where it spent most of its career.

Incidentally, Andreas Morenberg’s ex-libris, preserved in his Polyglot Bible, also confirms my first law of heraldry: If a person’s name refers to black people in one way or another (Morenberg comes from Moor), their coat of arms must contain one, or preferably two, black persons represented stereotypically in the nude.


New Fabricas Found

Recently, the New York Times announced with great fanfare that a new copy of the King James Bible was found at Drew University, recorded only in the old card catalogue, but not in the online database. It was a useful reminder how online catalogues remain incomplete, and, for exhaustive searches, it is still helpful to consult earlier, paper catalogues.

This is how, this morning, we found two previously unknown copies of the 1555 edition of Vesalius’ Fabrica in the Biblioteka PAN in Gdańsk. As the library’s website usefully reminds readers, their online catalogue does not include all holdings in the special collections. We therefore had to consult the library’s original card catalog from before World War II, which indeed listed the Fabrica, together with other editions of Vesalius’ works from the 16th and 17th centuries. In the early modern period, Gdańsk or Danzig was one of the most important cities of Europe, with a population over hundred thousand. It had many excellent scholars, so it was to be expected that these copies would turn up. Unfortunately, one of the two 1555 editions has gone missing since the creation of the card catalogue, but the other one is still present.

The extant Gdańsk Fabrica was first purchased by the Wittenberg professor Esrom Rudinger in 1564, who then moved to Bohemia. We do not yet know how, it moved from Bohemia to Gdańsk, where it became part of the Senate Library. Its handwritten marginalia confirm our hypothesis, first presented at the Morbid Anatomy Library, that the Fabrica was primarily read for sex. One of the Fabrica’s early readers annotated page 655, where Vesalius discusses why the muscles at the mouth of the uterus cannot be controlled voluntarily. As our male author argues, if women could tighten these muscles, they could practice contraception at will by preventing the sperm from entering the uterus. This is precisely the passage that the early reader underlines, leaving the remaining 823 pages of text untouched.

Warren, Vesalius and the Fine Arts

John Warren, Countway.JPG

The Center for the History of Medicine at Harvard’s Francis A. Countway Library holds a remarkable notebook of lectures that John Warren (1753-1815), one of the three founders of Harvard Medical School, gave there on anatomy over the course of thirty years, from 1783 until 1812. The course included an introductory lecture on the history of civilizations, the history of anatomy within that broader history, and the utility of anatomy.

Warren’s unpublished lectures on the utility of anatomy are a tour de force of arguments why everyone, not only physicians, should study anatomy. Prevention, Warren explains, is far more effective than remedial medicine. In our private capacity, a knowledge of anatomy is essential to preventing diseases in ourselves and our families. Warren also champions anatomy’s utility for the non-medical professions, including lawyers and priests. Turning to the fine arts, Warren relies on the Fabrica to make his case.

“To the sculptor, the painter, and musician the study of anatomy may also be highly useful, to the two former as it gives them an idea of the true situations and natural appearances of the various attitudes of the body. The admirable figures of Vesalius contained in his second book, of 18 tables on the muscles, have been of great use to the profession of these arts. The first 2, 3, and 4th represent the strong life, and have therefore been particularly selected as their models.”

As our forthcoming article on a copy of the Fabrica owned by Jacques de Gheyn II will show, artists have appreciated the importance and usefulness of Calcar’s woodcuts for their own profession ever since the book’s first appearance. While scholars have long debated which artists contributed to the design of the Fabrica, the atlas’ impact on the fine arts is less often discussed in today’s secondary literature than it was, even among anatomists, well into the nineteenth century. As late as 1854, a copy of the Fabrica was given to the Belgian painter Leopold de Coen when he won the Brussels Painting Academy’s prize, as a guide for the “purity of the contours in his future works.”

Epitome Unbound

Vesalius’ unbound Epitome, published in Latin and German in 1543 alongside the first edition, was meant to be a cheap summary of the whole Fabrica for use in teaching, perhaps even during dissection. Probably because it was designed for practical uses, fewer copies survive than either the 1543 or 1555 editions of the valuable, full-length book. Regular use left most surviving copies of the Epitome heavily damaged, ranging from tears along foldings to all kinds of stains.

However, some copies that we examined suggest that at the first sign of wear and tear the prudent and frugal owners decided to bind their Epitomes as books. These show relatively little wear compared to the majority of copies. The Houghton Library’s copy is one such, made even more rare by the fact that a German and a Latin edition are bound together. Another is a beautifully preserved copy at the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze. This also has another feature rare among Epitomes, namely that it is annotated in Greek.

As we get further into the analytical part of our project, we hope to correlate the patterns of ownership and dissemination of the two book editions with those of the rare Epitomes, and perhaps become able to make more informed guesses about the print runs and uses of this wonderful little work. Our team has already published a list of surviving copies of both the Latin and German Epitomes, which you can consult here.

Mutilating and Stamping


The Fabrica has justly been famous since its first appearance for its stunning illustrations, including the famous series of the muscle and skeleton men. Unsurprisingly, these illustrations have sometimes been removed from the original copy and sold separately.

Even though this practice brings out the appreciation that owners and thieves had for the book’s aesthetics, dismembering the Fabrica is a dubious practice at best. It renders the book as a whole mutilated and far less useful. Looking at Fabricas in Rome, we noticed that some libraries, including the BNCF, the Angelica, and the Vatican, systematically stamp the muscle men in both the 1543 and 1555 editions, presumably to prevent or minimize the risk of excising and selling them. Indeed, the mutilated copy at the Josephinum in Vienna has every single page stamped, presumably to prevent further loss. We started adding this information to our catalogue entries.

It is entirely understandable that libraries stamp these illustrations to prevent loss, yet one could argue that these stamps also interfere with the appreciation of the illustrations themselves. In addition, given how common it is too see the phrase “eradicated library stamp” in copies of the Fabrica at auctions, one wonders if the stamping of pages serves as a useful deterrent against thieves. It would be interesting to see a detailed discussion of the pros and cons of this practice.


Bibliography as a Search Engine

Search engines are an extremely valuable tool to find rare books, but one needs to find the proper search term to find those copies that do not turn up when googling for “vesalius fabrica.” This is especially a problem for privately owned copies purchased at auctions, which are very difficult to find. Fortunately, most auction houses use a bibliographic reference system that, mutatis mutandis, can be used for the purposes of internet search.

Auction houses tend to have a distinct, standardized style for providing online and offline descriptions of a rare book. These descriptions include a proper collation with missing pages marked, a physical condition report, sometimes information on previous owners, and a short, often superlative, blurb on the significance of the book on sale. These entries tend to close with references to standard works of bibliography that provide further information on the book on sale. In the case of the Fabrica, such references include Garrison-Morton or Horblit’s One hundred books famous in science. Thus, the recent Christie’s auction of the Royal Institution Fabrica ended with the following line: “Adams V-603; Dibner, Heralds of Science 122; Garrison-Morton 375; Heirs of Hippocrates 281; Grolier Medicine 18A; NLM/Durling 4577; PMM 71; Wellcome 6560; Norman 2137.”

If you then put these phrases into Google, you will find Fabricas on sale everywhere. Earlier this month, the google search term “Norman 2137” turned up a number of copies recently sold at auction or currently on sale. And this morning, googling for “Adams V-603” brought me three previously unknown (to us) copies of the Fabrica, sold in the past decade by Heritage Auctions and by Dreweatts & Bloomsbury, and at the Gerald I. Sugarman sale of PBA Galleries. As I argued elsewhere, bibliographic references can quickly turn into media that facilitate the commerce of rare books (or naturalia), and, in this case, also facilitate the completion of our census.

Digitized Card Catalogs

It would be foolish to think that online library catalogues truly reflect a library’s holdings. Sometimes, the conversion of paper card catalogues (if extant) to online entries has not even begun, or is incomplete, or contains many mistakes. It is thus always welcome when a library also has a digitized copy of the old card catalogue, an easy and trustworthy way of checking what books are in the collections.

I was thus very excited to learn about the International CIPAC List, which offers a list of digitized card catalogues across the world, whose entries do not show up on WorldCat or on union catalogues. A quick check through the CIPAC List has directed us to new copies of the Fabrica in Cieszyn, Fribourg, Kyiv, Linz, otherwise impossible to find on the web.

It also showed that once there was a Fabrica in Karlsruhe, before the library was destroyed in 1942. One more copy can be added to the list of those that disappeared during the ravages of the two world wars: Berlin, Greifswald, Halle, Leuven and Strasbourg.

The Josephinum in Vienna

DSCN8955.JPGThe Josephinum in Vienna is mostly known for its amazing collection of anatomical wax models. Yet it also holds an important library collection in the history of medicine, including two copies of the 1555 edition of Vesalius’ Fabrica (JB 855a and JB 855b).  I visited the collection last Tuesday, and was pleased to find two fascinating copies.

JB 855a appears to have belonged to the court of the Habsburg Emperor, but the faded note of provenance is practically impossible to read (Can anyone help?). JB 855b is quite worn, but, fascinatingly, almost all the historiated initials have been cut out at one point. An important reminder how, for some readers, the illustrations were so important that they did not worry about mutilating the text.

Together with the copies of Prince Eugene of Savoy and Hans Dernschwam at the Austrian National Library, and a richly annotated copy at the Albertina, Vienna’s holdings of the Fabrica are truly exceptional.