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Skeleton of a boy sitting on the 'D' of 'Dream', from Francesco Bertinatti, Elementi di anatomia fisiologica applicata alle belle arti figurative (Turin, 1837-39).  Artist: Mecco Leone. Lithograph
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Anatomical Primitives

The invention of the printing press in the 1450s, and the development of woodcut and copperplate engraving, made it possible to publish multiple copies of illustrated anatomies. Whimsical, surreal, beautiful, and often grotesque, the new anatomical images were rendered with varying degrees of skill and sophistication, in a hodge-podge of styles.

Crude figure of a dissected man, left hand extended across his chest, with lines radiating from his body. Cropped, from Jacopo Berengario da Carpi,  Anatomia Carpi. Isagoge breves perlucide ac uberime, in Anatomiam humani corporis... (Bologna, 1535). Woodcut..
A dissected, armless bearded man opened up to reveal his main organs; each feature of the image is assigned a Hebrew letter. Cropped, from Toviyah Kats, Ma’a’seh Toviyah (Venice, 1708). Woodcut. National Library of Medicine.

After the publication of the first modern anatomy, Vesalius’s revolutionary De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543), illustrations in the Vesalian manner proliferated. But images with limited or no Vesalian influence continued to be featured in surgical manuals, almanacs, encyclopedias, and philosophical treatises, alongside discussions of astrology, alchemy, and theology.

Cropped, from Jacopo Berengario da Carpi, Isagogae breves per lucidae ac uberrimae in Anatomiam human corporis... (Bologna, 1523). Woodcut.
A dissected torso that serves as an anatomical coat of arms. The phrase “INEVITABILE FATUM (inevitable fate), 1537” is inscribed on the base. Cropped, from Johannes Eichmann (also known as Dryander), Anatomiae, hoc est, corporis humani dissectionis... (Marburg, 1537). Woodcut.





Anatomical Primitives
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Anatomical Arts and Sciences
Body Part as Body Art
Show-off Cadavers

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Pre-modern Anatomies

Australian aboriginal “x-ray style” rock painting showing a roughly schematic rib cage, ca. 6000 B.C.E. Cropped.  Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia. © Archivo Iconografico, S.A./Corbis
Head from an anatomical illustration in a medieval Persian manuscript. Cropped, from Mansur ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Yusuf ibn Ilyas,  Tashrih-i badan-i insane, ca. 1400-1500.

Fascination with the interior of the body goes back to the dawn of humanity. The ancient Egyptians had specialized knowledge in some areas of human anatomy, which they used in mummification and, to a limited degree, surgery. Even before the advent of large organized cultures, prehistoric peoples performed rituals with remains that indicate familiarity with gross anatomy. Because they hunted and slaughtered large animals for food, the Inuit and Australian aborigines, developed a detailed knowledge of mammalian anatomy, and a complex vocabulary of anatomical terms, which they applied to animals and humans.

Rock paintings dating back to the Neolithic in Europe, Africa, and Australia show schematic and expressive representations of the human interior, as do some European, Islamic and Asian pre-modern manuscripts.


Anatomical manikins and diagnostic dolls

Anatomical manikin 1 from France, Germany and Italy, ca. 1500-1700. Carved ivory. Courtesy of the Alabama Museum of the Health Sciences, University of Alabama, Birmingham
Anatomical manikin 2 from France, Germany and Italy, ca. 1500-1700. Carved ivory. Courtesy of the Alabama Museum of the Health Sciences, University of Alabama, Birmingham

Between 1500 and 1800, anatomical knowledge based on human dissection circulated mainly among Europe’s educated elite, in the form of books, copperplate engravings, demonstrations and lectures in universities, museums and libraries. But anatomical knowledge also circulated in less lofty social locations, venues and media: in traveling shows, cheap publications, loose woodcuts—and small "anatomical manikins" carved from ivory and wood.

Anatomical manikin 3 from France, Germany and Italy, ca. 1500-1700. Carved ivory. Courtesy of the Alabama Museum of the Health Sciences, University of Alabama, Birmingham
Anatomical manikin 4 from France, Germany and Italy, ca. 1500-1700. Carved ivory. Courtesy of the Alabama Museum of the Health Sciences, University of Alabama, Birmingham

The public regarded anatomical dissection as a curiosity, a wonder of the age. Small, intricately carved, ivory "manikins," that opened to show the internal organs, represented this wonder. They also represented the physical difference between male and female, always a topic of interest, and may have been used as "diagnostic dolls" to help physicians and midwives explain a diagnosis to patients. Manikins typically came in pairs: a male and pregnant female. The artistry and anatomy were usually crude, but the figures were also sometimes deliberately whimsical.