Vivitur Ingenio: a virtual exhibition of Vesalius’s Fabrica and Epitome
‘Vivitur ingenio, caeteris mortis erunt’ – one lives on by the spirit, the rest shall belong to death – was a line commonly attributed to Virgil lamenting the death of his patron Maecenas (though we now know that the poet died before his patron). It is a phrase that adorns one of the most enduring images in On the fabric of the human body by Andreas Vesalius. He was born 500 years ago in 1514; he died fifty years later, in 1564. To mark the 500th anniversary of his birth, I have curated an online exhibition of several rare books from the wonderful collection at the University Library of Cambridge. The exhibition link is here: https://exhibitions.lib.cam.ac.uk/vesalius/
The Virgilian phrase was used earlier by Albrecht Dürer in his engraving portrait of his humanist friend, Willibald Pirckheimer, and deployed later by the astronomer Tycho Brahe as a decoration to one of his instruments, as explained in the Astronomiae Instauratae Mechanica – see the coloured version with English translation at the Royal Library of Denmark here.
I was quite struck by not only how often Vesalius’s image of the skeleton was copied , but also how the notion of ‘ingenium’ seems to have become important for those engaged in the study of nature. Perhaps Vesalius’s image of the skeleton was one medium through which the idea of ‘ingenium’ circulated. Thus I felt it fitting to use the phrase as a motto for the exhibition.
An advantage of a digital exhibition is that it can show many pages from the same book, juxtapose pages from different books, and show elements that are difficult to appreciate (such as continuous background landscapes) in a book in situ. The zooming facility enables us to see the extraordinary details achieved by woodcut in the Fabrica. The experience of the twenty-first-century viewer of the Fabrica is thus quite different from Vesalius’s contemporaries, who complained that some of the details were not readily visible.
Cambridge University Library also took this occasion to digitize fully its extraordinary coloured copy of Vesalius’s Epitome, the companion volume to the Fabrica. Happily, in this copy of the Epitome, the cut-out, ‘pop-up’ paper manikin has survived. You can see the book here.
I have particularly enjoyed examining the coloured frontispiece of the Epitome (the same woodcut as the one used in the Fabrica), as the colouring brings out the details of the crowded theatrical scene of the black-and-white woodcut. We know very little at this point of the original provenance of this copy of the Epitome – for whom it was made and coloured. It is not clear, for example, whether or how it might relate to the lavishly coloured copy of the Fabrica that Vesalius dedicated to Emperor Charles V. This copy was sold at Christies NY in 1998, from the collection of the Haskell F. Norman Library of Science and Medicine, and its frontispiece can be examined in some detail at the website of New York Public Library (remnant of the 1999/2000 exhibition ‘Seeing is Believing’).