Encyclopedia of Early Modern Philosophy and the Sciences

Living Edition
| Editors: Dana Jalobeanu, Charles T. Wolfe

Anatomy in the Early Modern Period

  • Rafael MandressiEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-20791-9_564-1

Related Topics

Medicine Physiology Vivisection Experimentation on life Dissection 


Anatomy was developed in early modern Europe based on the dissection of human and animal bodies and animal vivisections. The opening and exploration of dead bodies as a means of accessing knowledge began to be practiced in the second half of the thirteenth century, particularly in northern Italy, and became more and more widespread from the end of the fifteenth century. Anatomy then underwent a tremendous expansion, not only becoming central to medical and surgical knowledge but, beyond that, a “branch of natural philosophy,” as Andreas Vesalius wrote in the Preface of his De humani corporis fabrica, published in Basel in 1543. Dedicated to the production of knowledge on the body that has gone beyond the limits of its mere usefulness for medicine, anatomy rapidly came to play a central part in the culture of early modern Europe.

Based on the segmentation of the body, on the exploration of its interior through the use of the anatomist’s hand and eye, anatomy has been a far-reaching knowledge enterprise which has produced considerable effects over three centuries. As a knowledge-based enterprise as well as a cultural one, it has informed all kinds of discourses on the nature of human beings, has permeated visual culture and shaped perceptual habits, has produced an edifying literature about spaces – corporeal and architectural – social practices, and intellectual tools for thinking about reality and the world.

The Rise of Dissections

Contrary to widespread opinion, the appearance of human dissections for the study of anatomy did not result from the lifting of a prohibition. No regulatory text, particularly from the ecclesiastical authorities, has ever prohibited the carrying out of anatomical dissections. These were not institutionally opposed by the Catholic Church, nor did cultural barriers related to the Christian religion prevent or hinder their emergence until the late Middle Ages (Mandressi 2003).

The use of the methodical cutting up of dead bodies as an approach to knowledge must rather be placed in the context of the transformations that occurred within medical knowledge itself, spurred by the reception of Greek-Arab medicine in the medieval West from the eleventh and twelfth centuries onward. A vast translation activity in southern Italy and the Iberian Peninsula made it possible to introduce medical texts into Latin Europe which, in turn, contributed to the Galenic impregnation of medieval medicine (Jacquart, Micheau 1990). This first occurred through Arabized Galenism and then through Greek-Latin versions of Galen’s works, whose production continued until the first half of the sixteenth century, with the translation in 1529 and 1531 of the Anatomical Procedures (De anatomicis administrationibus), the most important of the Galenic treatises on dissections, which was added to the one on the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body (De usu partium), first translated into Latin in 1317. The Galenic corpus, the Arab medical summaries, such as Avicenna’s Canon or Averroes’ Colliget, which gave anatomy a treatment that invited greater attention to it, and Aristotle’s zoological treatises, which provided a method and legitimacy to research on animal bodies, played a decisive part in the attribution of a key role to anatomical knowledge.

Thus, first, through the Arabic and Greek texts, anatomy was promoted as the first component of medical knowledge. Moreover, these texts also foregrounded the significance of sensory observations for anatomical knowledge. A new status and new orientations were therefore established for it which, at the turn of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, materialized through practices consisting in manipulating, opening, and examining the interior of the bodies.

Seeing and Cutting

The constitution of anatomical knowledge is inextricably bound with an observational approach. As far back as in 1502, as typified by Alessandro Benedetti’s Historia corporis humani sive Anatomice and even perhaps during the medieval period, the writings of anatomists highlighted the importance of sensory perception in the acquisition of knowledge: both sight and touch enabled privileged access to the “truths” of the body. Anatomists insisted on the need for eye and hand activity and on the direct observation and manipulation of bodies, to the detriment of book knowledge whose reliability was increasingly questioned. It became necessary to move the source of knowledge from texts to bodies: this, in its most succinct expression, was the “sensory program” constantly emphasized by Renaissance anatomists.

As a result, the use of the verdict of the senses became the appropriate method to verify what was in the texts, to resolve cases of discordant opinions of ancient authors, or, if necessary, to correct these authors’ potential mistakes and not only to compare and contrast opinions. In the Preface of the De humani corporis fabrica, Andreas Vesalius explains that it is in the light of sensory experience that he has corrected errors made by Galen, invoking the way of proceeding recommended by Galen himself, who indicated in the De usu partium that “anyone who wants to contemplate the works of nature must not rely on anatomical works, but on his own eyes.”

Significantly, the anatomist’s hands became just as important as his eyes. Sight and touch opened the paths of knowledge that anatomists had been asserting since the end of the fifteenth century, such as Galen, as the foundations of the new science they intended to build. Nothing was more certain in the description of objects, writes Charles Estienne in his De dissectione partium corporis humani (1545), than the eye fidelissimus; even if he admits worshiping Galen as a god and acknowledges Vesalius’s talent, Realdo Colombo warns, in his De re anatomica (1559), that if things appear to the eye otherwise than they have described them, he will side with the “truth.” Veritas and oculi, one cannot be separated from the other/both must function together/Veritas and oculi are inextricably bound. In 1628, William Harvey decided to publish his theory on “the motion of the heart and the circulation of blood” only after it had been confirmed per autopsiam by his colleagues at the Royal College of Physicians. His peers, he points out, have attended his many “ocular demonstrations,” conducted to uncover “truths.” One must see and touch, working with the “eyes of the hands” (oculatis manibus), as Jean Riolan fils summarized in his Encheiridium anatomicum et pathologicum in 1648. In the Preface of the Fabrica, Vesalius proposed a kind of manifesto for a new anatomy pursued by manual virtuosity and sharpness of vision. These ideas had, however, already been suggested by anatomists before him. Berengario da Carpi, for example, who in his Commentary to the Anatomy of Mondino de’ Liuzzi (1521), assigns to the “testimony of the senses” the role of providing “proof” in anatomy and speaks of anatomia sensibilis to designate this knowledge limited to structures perceptible by the senses (French 1985, Mandressi 2005).

These precepts on how to do and know, which were reiterated throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, must nevertheless be put into perspective in terms of their effective implementation. The “sensory” anatomy did not prevent the use of texts as mediators: books made vision possible because they recorded how to see. In other words, texts made it possible to organize the anatomical work and in so doing enabled the revision of these very books, which could be corrected and questioned, if only partially. Inherited knowledge was therefore not cast aside but rather reorganized, especially as regards its relationship with the autoptic approach.

The “sensory program” of early modern anatomy – that is, the primacy attributed to sensorial experience – has nevertheless produced extraordinarily significant effects. The entire anatomical apparatus revolved around sight, as suggested by the development of specific spaces intended to optimize the perceptive experience: anatomical theaters were conceived as observatories of the body. As exemplified by Alessandro Benedetti’s 1502 first description of an anatomical theater designed for public dissections (Klestinec 2004, 2007; Mandressi 2015), anatomical practice was conceived as a performance. This is also evidenced by operating techniques aimed at unveiling the parts – opening, showing, raising, and extracting – and implemented as “demonstrative tactics” (Mandressi 2008) or by the increasingly intensive use of printed images. All material and intellectual resources contributed to making the human body a visual object. The first and fundamental step in understanding its structure was therefore to make it available to the eye.

As the human body was increasingly constructed as a visual object, however it simultaneously became a spatial one. The images, be they sumptuous like those of the Fabrica and the Tabulæ anatomicæ by Giulio Casseri (1627) or more rudimentary like those of Berengario da Carpi, caught the body in a cartographic frame, presenting it as a land to explore, contain, and are made up of circumscribed and named places, which the beholder was invited to discover through a graphic representation. A space, in short, loaded with nomenclature and composed of as many subspaces as fragmentation has managed to isolate. The cutting on the dissection table had its intellectual equivalent; they echoed one another, and the piece of flesh cut by the anatomist’s hands was objectified as a unit of composition of the body. Dismantled (dismembered and turned into individual parts?) it can then be reconstituted, but only by thought, from the segments that the dissection has produced.

Mechanics and Solids

Anatomy is knowledge of the parts and by the parts (Fernel 1542), because it “does not treat the whole and continuous body but divided into parts and limbs” (Du Laurens 1600). Division is the very principle according to which anatomical knowledge is built. The body is conceived as a whole whose intelligibility is obtained by virtue of discrimination, discernment, separation, fragmentation, and the designation of regions. These are, in the first place, four: the three “venters” or cavities (abdominal, thoracic, encephalic) and the extremities. They are in turn subdivided, their contents inspected to distinguish parts, which will be further severed in a gradual descent to the ultimate fragment. The introduction of the microscope and the beginning of its systematic use in anatomical studies in the 1660s – by Marcello Malpighi, in particular (Bertoloni Meli 1997) – only pushed the limits of the indivisible further, by revealing what could then be identified as the elementary part in the composition of the body: it appeared in the form of a filament or fiber. It was therefore at the level of the fiber that the main properties of living bodies, primarily sensibility, were theorized in the eighteenth century. The human body, writes Giorgio Baglivi in his treatise De fibra motrice et morbosa (1700), consists only of beams of fibers: lengthened in the brain and nerves, woven like wefts in the membranes, hardened in the bones, and tightened in the glands, viscera, and muscles.

In anatomy books, the writing of the body, its description, follows this segmentation path: from the surface to the inside, from the whole to the parts. The order of dissection is also the order of the texts. However, a second arrangement of this narrative is juxtaposed with the first, which follows the path of composition, starting from the most buried layers to the skin. It is an order of construction of the body, “the order of nature,” as written, among others, by Charles Estienne (1545). Etienne’s description begins with the bones, since they are the foundations of the structure, the parts that give form and support, those on which the “edifice” of the body is built. The body was conceived as a building, indeed, which was put into narrative and images in terms of architecture, weight, and support. The parts – bones, muscles, nerves, veins, arteries, solid masses, and hollow volumes – are arranged in such a way that their main solidarity is achieved through a set of forces and balances. When the structure began to move, in the last decades of the sixteenth century and throughout the seventeenth century, mechanical references took precedence over architectural analogies; the parts were more often called pieces; the composition became mounting.

In a philosophical context marked by mechanism, where each phenomenon and each object were subjected to the explanatory model of the machine and mechanization impregnated the learned representations of the body, the models used to explain the body’s structure and functions referred to mechanical entities, and the descriptions of the body were loaded with references to springs, levers, pulleys, ropes, and channels. In his De venarum ostiolis (1603), for example, the Italian anatomist Girolamo Fabrici d’Acquapendente used hydraulics to present his views on the valvular system of the veins, as did William Harvey when he presented his theory on blood circulation in 1628.

These analogies became more complex later, when the microscope revealed particles nestled into the parts that had been thought to be the smallest to the naked eye and opened the way to a finer frame of the body. Microscopic anatomy worked hand in glove with mechanistic ideas and led to a notion of the body where vital functions were based on a well-organized set of tiny machines (machinulæ) that acted, among other things, as cisterns or sieves. This gave rise to a fibrillar mechanism, made of tension and relaxation, oscillations, vibrations, and twists, organized around nerve fibers and motor fibers.

The anatomical fragmentation favored mechanistic representations of the body, as well as attention to shapes and forces, to solid parts. Cadaveric dissection as a method is also crucial here. The knowledge of the body obtained by this means is unable to capture liquids, either materially or theoretically. The liquids in the dead body are not humors – they are no longer humors, life being absent. They are therefore embarrassing, leaking out as they do, flowing out of the body, and disrupting the sight and proper manipulation of the solid parts, the only ones that anatomists are called upon to deal with “solæ partes solidæ considerantur,” says Jean Riolan very explicitly in his Encheiridium anatomicum of 1648. The body’s representations also dried up, so to speak, since anatomical iconography only showed solid matter: the body objects prepared with techniques used mainly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were unambiguously known as “dry anatomies.”

An Anthropological Knowledge

Mechanical and dry, hence solid, divided into segments which can then be mounted together, and conceived in visual and spatial terms, as a structure capable of local movement, resulting from the examination of the inert that is dismantled during its ocular inspection, these are some of the features that define the portrait of the body that anatomy has drawn over time. It is this type of knowledge of the body which informed the development of a doctrina de homine, mainly in the reformed Germanic area from the sixteenth century onward (De Angelis 2010, Mandressi 2013): to know the human being, one must know their body, and this can only be achieved through anatomy. A “somatology” complemented by a doctrine of the soul, “psychology,” thus provides the basis for this early modern European “anthropology,” influenced by theology as much as natural philosophy.

Anatomy thus became, from the Renaissance onward, a knowledge that was considered capable of reflecting fundamental human properties. It was also a cultural device and a way of thinking which produced attitudes and representations which were to be found in almost all kinds of scholarly discourses and social practices, unified, however, by an object and a gaze: the body and its understanding by means of techniques of interpretation and description resulting from its methodical cutting. The dead body, the raw material of anatomical operations, meets a gaze that renews itself as it looks over its surfaces and depths. In this meeting, however, the corpse imposes a limit: life and vital functions are absent. The consequences of this limitation cannot be underestimated: a knowledge that became central in early modern European culture was only able to produce a kind of thought built on the basis of dead objects.



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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre Alexandre-KoyréCNRSParisFrance

Section editors and affiliations

  • Gideon Manning
    • 1
  1. 1.Early Modern StudiesClaremont Graduate UniversityPasadenaUSA