Brussels mathematician Jan van den Bossche, (fictional), single, and fifty years old, is devasted to learn of the death of his lifelong friend, the brilliant (and very real) anatomist Andreas Vesalius.  Companions since childhood, shorter, sturdy Vesalius was the outgoing exuberant leader of the duo, snubbing authority, taking risks, and seizing every opportunity to explore the anatomical structure of animals and humans. He constantly dragged the quiet, shy Jan in his exploits.  

News of Vesalius’s death sends Jan in two directions. First, he wanders back through many memories: their lives and travels together to Paris, Leiden, Padua, Spain; the rise of Vesalius’s fame in anatomy, medicine, and surgery; and his odd departure from academe to serve foreign crowned heads in France and Spain. Second, it propels him forward on a journey to his friend’s grave on the Greek island of Zante (now Zakynthos), in an effort to comprehend why the notorious skeptic would have embarked on a religious pilgrimage in the first place. Jan realizes that he can forgive Vesalius almost everything, including the theft by marriage of his beloved Alice. But he is incapable of pardoning the bewildering manner of his death.


Centered on the mysterious death and lost grave of the great anatomist, this enjoyable novel is anchored in nodal points generated by scholarly literature. Published in 1543, Vesalius’s marvelously illustrated treatise the Structure of the Human Body revolutionized medical science. It remains one of the most important works in the history of art, of medicine, and of the book.

The device of a first-person account by an observant but hesitant best friend allows for vivid recreation of the many remarkable moments in the anatomist’s life. Relying solidly on social and political history, it convincingly evokes the atmosphere of sixteenth century Europe and the relationship between low-country people and their Spanish overlords. The surprising but plausible ending will surely encourage readers to learn more and to follow the myriad, very real quests to locate the missing bones of a man who fabricated the science of human anatomy on the exposed mortal remains of so many others.


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