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Warren’s unpublished lectures on the utility of anatomy are a tour de force of arguments why everyone, not only physicians, should study anatomy.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.”

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