In 1543, Andreas Vesalius published one of the foundational texts in all of human discourse, De humani corporis fabrica, On the fabric of the human body. It is based on his series of Paduan lectures on anatomy which were, unusually for the time, illustrated with the performance of actual dissections. His remarkably accurate and detailed illustrations show for the first time what the inside of a person looks like, and corrected many erroneous assumptions about human anatomy that had persisted since Galen.
|Anatomy classes aren't conducted like this anymore. |
For one thing, the dogs aren't allowed in to carry off scraps that fall from the table.
Folks are pretty common. How come we were so clueless about the plumbing for so long? Because Roman Law disallowed dissection (Galen used monkeys instead, assuming them to be just like humans on the inside) and the Church frowned on cutting people up to take a look. Eventually, they decided that executed criminals were fair game for medical science, because they weren’t expected to make an appearance at the Pearly Gates, so could be dismantled with impunity.
But it is not the dissections that Vesalius is known for; it’s his illustrations of them. Advances in printing meant that he could print drawings in exquisite detail that did justice to the minutiae he uncovered. In death he leant his subjects a dignity they had been denied in life, picturing them in the poses of classic art, even as they held open their peeled-back skin and muscle to reveal what lay inside. They lean against plinths in rustic settings, or hang from an invisible pulley, their bones and joints labeled the way livestock is on butcher’s charts.
The Church did not like to think of the human as an animal, being concerned, as they were, with the soul, but we have no such reticence about drawing a tasty beast up into sirloins and flanks and ribs and chops as if their bodies were Bingo cards.
The beautiful book of household management that sadly lacks an identifying cover that this illustration of a bullock comes from is one such playscape. Part 5 is a “mouse round.” Part 1 is, of course the cheek. Unlike Vesalius’s illustrations, carving charts generally feature living animals, the divisions superimposed or printed onto the skin. As such, they are the exact opposite of how most people buy they meat these days, as slabs of red flesh packed onto a polystyrene tray bound in plastic wrap, its origin a mystery to most. We like our protein anonymous, without the specter of a face glaring back at us — our own, perhaps, reflected in the supermarket’s fluorescent lights.
A copy of De humani corporis fabrica housed at Brown University is bound in human skin, which seems appropriate. It might give one the heebie-jeebies to handle though. If it had been bound, as most books were, in vellum, no-one would turn a hair.