Andrew Cunningham and Katharine Park Comparative Interpretation of Vesalius’s De Fabrica Title-page

14 November, 2017 - MA Coursework

Andrew Cunningham, The Anatomical Renaissance: The Resurrection of the Anatomical Projects of the Ancients (Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate, 1997).

Katharine Park, Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection (New York: Zone Books, 2006).


In both Andrew Cunningham’s The Anatomical Renaissance: The Resurrection of the Anatomical Projects of the Ancients and Katharine Park’s Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection, the title-page of Vesalius’s Fabrica served to elucidate each of their respective arguments. This is no source of conflict, except for those who seek it out for entertainment. Rather, we must take to heart Park’s insistence that “the sixteenth-century emblem combined highly allusive, often allegorical, images with ambiguous texts. The emblematic title page was a kind of rebus or puzzle, intentionally complicated and difficult to decipher.” As such, a comparison of Cunningham’s and Park’s interpretations of Fabrica’s title page is not a story about the triumph of the correct interpretation and the ignorance of the other, but rather a description of two different projects of inquiry.

Cunningham’s project, against the prevailing historiographic attitude of Vesalius’s role in the radical break from ancient to modern anatomy, is to establish that Vesalius’s project of inquiry was Galen’s, that Vesalius resurrected Galen’s view of the dissected body — “anatomy as structure.” This is Cunningham’s objective — the literal interpretation of Renaissance as re-naissance, of a classical anatomizing program and the body as that program saw it. And so Cunningham sees this embodied in the Fabrica title page. His interpretation rests on a, though not unlikely, unsubstantiated (by him) assumption that Vesalius was fully responsible for the allegorical contents of the title-page (So does Park’s, and I know this was common practice, but it is briskly taken for granted by both our authors — obviously, their license to interpret the title-page image entirely hinges upon their ability to associate it with Vesalius’s intentions). As Cunningham puts it himself, “[a]ll the points about Vesalius and his enterprise which I have been teasing from his biography and work, can be seen loudly and boldly announced on the title-page of the Fabrica itself.” For Cunningham the anatomy theater is also a dramatic theater, and may also a church, and at the altar stands the central actor — Vesalius — reconfiguring the anatomizing ritual. This tells us Cunningham’s first two points of emphasis for the title-page: the personal engagement of the lecturing in the dissection and the participatory nature of the ritual, with the audience in close proximity, learning from sight and touch and not text. Of further importance for Cunningham, and not at all coincidentally corroborating his central thesis, is the presence of three ancients in the foreground overlooking and consenting to Vesalius’s anatomical endeavor, whose stature defies linear perspective and who thus appear larger than life. On the right stands Aristotle, whose downward gaze to the animals to be dissected or vivisected hints at his own anatomical project of inquiry. On the left in the foreground is Galen, with his physicians’ purse, whose visage, for Cunningham, is indicative of his approval of Vesalius’s activity and, consequently, Vesalius’s rebirth of the Galenic anatomical project. For Cunningham, the title-page is a synopsis of Fabrica, a rendition of the written text (and of Cunningham’s own text) with visual rhetoric. This is a point of fruitful comparison with Park’s interpretation.

For Park, instead, the “full meaning” of Fabrica “emerged only through a careful consideration of text and image” [emphasis mine]. That is to say, the image adds to the meaning that can be gleaned from the text. What the image adds to the text, for Park, is much more complicated and less literal than for Cunningham. Whereas for Cunningham the text makes overt references to Aristotle and Galen and not so subtly places Vesalius in the center, for Park, the title-page, rather than putting its meaning on display, evokes its referents only implicitly. She points out the obvious juxtaposition of of the womb and the skeleton as a memento mori — a reminder of the inevitability of death — and acknowledges the presence of Aristotle and its significance. These nods allow her interpretation to coexist with Cunningham’s. She does not dismiss what he sees, but instead adds to it a much more elusive reference. She positions Vesalius as a striver after the patronage of the Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, to whom Fabrica was dedicated (the Epitome, a truncated form of the text was dedicated to Charles’s son Phillip II). The Holy Roman emperor was perceived to be a continuation of the Roman Julio-Claudian dynasty, and it is through the lens of this conceit that Park reads Vesalius. According to Park, Fabrica’s title-page was designed to be evocative of the stories of Julius Caesar’s birth (pulled from the womb of his dead mother) and Nero’s murder of his mother Agrippina. This evocation was alluded to punningly on the cartouche below the scene, on which the first line, larger than the others reads “CVM CAESAREO,” of course serving as the printer’s privilege, but also, for Park a citation to another semantic layer of the title-page image.












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