Imagining Vesalius: An Ekphrastic, Scholarly and Literary Celebration of the 1543 De Humani Corporis Fabrica of Andreas Vesalius

Ratzan, Richard

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Anthology (Mixed Genres)

  • Date of entry: Jul-19-2021


Richard M. Ratzan brings together scholars and creative writers to celebrate the legacy of the sixteenth-century Flemish physician and anatomist, Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564), and his 1543 landmark text, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body). Ratzan defines the volume as an “ekphrastic collection of poetry, art and short prose” inspired by “the inimitably conceived and executed anatomical woodcuts” of Vesalius’s most enduring creation (xi). Organized by different genres, Ratzan presents introductory essays, ekphrastic works, translations of Vesalius-inspired poems, and detailed note and bibliography sections. The collection does not merely panegyrize but articulates the deeper intellectual import of De Humani’s meticulous anatomical renderings. Sachiko Kusukawa’s introductory essay frames De Humani as a “rhetorically charged polemic and defense” that challenged the European medical institution in two key ways (3). First, it promoted the revival of the “ancient [Greek and Roman] practice of healing based on diet, medicines and surgery,” a bold effort that aimed to resuscitate anatomy and other forms of “hands-on engagement” that had fallen out of favor with Vesalius’s contemporaries (2). Second, De Humani emendated the anatomical descriptions advanced by Galen, a second-century physician who promoted dissection in his Anatomical Procedures and whom European physicians considered an authority (3). This volume captures the fascinating fusion of artistry and intellectual individuality that characterizes Vesalius’s work.


Ratzan’s collection draws a broad range of readers, including physicians, artists, historians of medicine, and medical humanists. There is much to be savored in Imagining Vesalius, but among some memorable contributions is Cortney Davis’s “Man with a Shovel,” a poem written in first-person from the perspective of one of Vesalius’s skeletons. This anatomical illustration details the ornate osteal architecture of a full body that leans on a gilded shovel, looks upward with an outstretched arm, and grimaces in a soundless, open-mouthed cry. Davis’s skeleton blames Vesalius for forsaking it in a landscape of “arid gullies and mountains” equipped with only an “useless” and “flimsy spade” (77). Vesalius is depicted as a cruel physician whose specimen is “pierced and stripped of flesh” and whose anatomical notations are regarded as “odd and anguished numbered / curses” (77). Told from the skeleton’s perspective, Davis’s poem captures the imagined despair of Vesalius’s bony figure. Also absorbing is F. Gonzalez-Crussi’s essay, “Random Thoughts on Anatomy and Vesalius,” which muses incisively on the “tension” engendered by Vesalius’s “scientific descriptive accurateness and free artistic imagination” (52). This tension stems from Vesalius’s simultaneous capture of the anatomical precision and individual humanity of his dissected specimens. Gonzalez-Crussi reflects, “This complexity of the body is intimidating. Most people experience this dread or intimidation with regard to the dissection of corpses, which is seen as a violation of an ineffable mystery” (49). With this, one may recall the moment in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain when Hans Castorp, for the first time, looks upon the x-ray of his cousin’s shadowy torso and experiences a rush of both wonder and irreverence. In an age of advanced diagnostic medical imaging technologies, such as CT scans, MRIs, x-rays, ultrasound, and PET, Vesalius’s drawings articulate humanized renderings of the body that, beyond muscles and organs, represent figures that, with or without flesh, emote, strive, and suffer.


University of California Medical Humanities Press

Place Published

San Francisco, CA


Richard M. Ratzan

Page Count