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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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Introduction: Dream Anatomy

The interior of our bodies is hidden to us. What happens beneath the skin is mysterious, fearful, amazing. In antiquity, the body's internal structure was the subject of speculation, fantasy, and some study, but there were few efforts to represent it in pictures. The invention of the printing press in the 15th century-and the cascade of print technologies that followed-helped to inspire a new spectacular science of anatomy, and new spectacular visions of the body. Anatomical imagery proliferated, detailed and informative but also whimsical, surreal, beautiful, and grotesque — a dream anatomy that reveals as much about the outer world as it does the inner self.

A woman’s back, upon which is projected an anatomical illustration of an exposed spinal column and labeled organs. Cropped, from Katherine Du Tiel,  Inside/Outside: Back (San Francisco, 1994). Photograph. Image © by Katherine Du Tiel.
Legs walking over the ground, with dissected thighs and pelvis. Cropped, from John Browne, A compleat treatise of the muscles, as they appear in the humane body, and arise in dissection... (London, 1681). Copperplate engraving.
A dissected hand and forearm propped up between the bound cover of a thick book and its first page. Cropped, from Govard Bidloo, Ontleding des menschelyken lichaams... (Amsterdam, 1690). Copperplate engraving with etching. Artist: Gérard de Lairesse.

Over the centuries anatomy has become a visual vocabulary of realism. We regard the anatomical body as our inner reality, a medium through which we imagine society, culture and the human condition.

Drawn mainly from the collections of the National Library of Medicine, Dream Anatomy shows off the anatomical imagination in some of its most astonishing incarnations, from 1500 to the present.

Next Topic: Technologies of Anatomical Representation
History of Anatomy

Next Section: Anatomical Dreamtime

A man with his skin off, stands in front of a landscape. Cropped, from Andreas Vesalius,  De Humani Corporis Fabrica... (Basel, 1543). Woodcut.  Artist: Stephen van Calcar and the Workshop of Titian.