Networking with the Fabrica

Networking with a Book, or

How Vesalius Gave away his Complimentary Copies of the Fabrica

Dániel Margócsy, Márk Somos and Stephen Joffe

(The authors are currently conducting a census of the 1543 and 1555 editions of the Fabrica. Please let us know if you have or know of a copy at

Early modern authors tended not to get paid by the publisher. Instead, they usually received a good number of complimentary copies as payment in kind. Yet we have very little knowledge what they actually did with these copies. Did they sell it wholesale to a bookdealer, did they peddle it at fairs, or did they give it away to friends, relatives, and potential employers, as authors tend to do today? Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica, a revolutionary work of early modern anatomy, offers an excellent case study to reveal what strategies an author employed to put his complimentary copies to good use. The renowned Flemish anatomist came from a well-to-do family, and was already a professor at Padua in 1543 when his atlas appeared, and therefore had little need to sell the Fabrica for a living. Instead, he used these copies both for his own work and for building his professional networks.

It is well known how Vesalius used copies of his own books as a sketchpad for planning revised editions. As Vivian Nutton has shown, Vesalius marked his corrections and modifications of the text and the illustrations for a planned, but never realized, third edition of the Fabrica in a copy of the 1555 edition, now preserved at Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.[1] He similarly annotated his Institutiones anatomicae in the hopes of revising it, although he ultimately abandoned this project in favor of writing the Fabrica.[2] Yet in both cases, Vesalius used only one volume to record his corrections. What did he do with the other complimentary copies?

One answer is surely patronage. Vesalius dedicated the Fabrica to Emperor Charles V and the Epitome to the future Philip II, and brought the hand-colored presentation copies to the Emperor in person. The gift worked and Vesalius was soon appointed to the court as the personal physician of Charles. Yet Vesalius’ lavishly colored dedication copy to the emperor, now in a private collection, shows only one facet of Vesalius’ complex networking strategies in the period.[3] To keep his job, he also needed to maintain his reputation among his colleagues, and he strategically donated copies of the Fabrica to other physicians to form alliances with them. In all probability, most complimentary copies of the Fabrica were used for such purposes.

Our research has uncovered so far three copies of the 1543 and 1555 editions of the Fabrica that Vesalius probably gave away to his friends. The Landes- und Universitätsbibliothek Bonn (Call no.: Ra 2’ 21/1 Rara) holds a 1543 edition that was once owned by Vesalius, who offered it to the Nuremberg physician Stephanus Lagus in 1548. Vesalius’ strategy of gifting the Fabrica to friends and allies worked well, as Lagus appears to have much appreciated the present, carefully noting the act of donation in his copy: “Sum Stephani Lagi ex dono D. Andreae Vesalii anno 1548 Eslingae.”

Stephanus Lagus’ inscription in his Fabrica. © Landes- und Universitätsbibliothek Bonn

Stephanus Lagus’ inscription in his Fabrica. © Landes- und Universitätsbibliothek Bonn

The note is probably authentic, as Vesalius was traveling with Charles V in the Germanic lands in 1548, and Esslingen was a frequent stop for the emperor. The practice of inscribing copies with the name of the donor was quite common in the period. Lagus himself wrote a similar ex-dono note in his copy of Avicenna’s Canon medicinae, which he received from the Nuremberg pharmacist Albert Pfister. Presents of books were clearly important for Lagus, bearing witness to his network of friends in a material form.

The 1555 copy of the Fabrica at the Städel Museum’s Graphische Sammlung in Frankfurt am Main (Call No.: Tresor 2/390) shows how strategic such gifts may have been to preserve Vesalius’ reputation. As it is well known, the Parisian professor Jacobus Sylvius launched a vicious attack against Vesalius in 1551, calling his former student mad (‘vaesanus’). A former and disillusioned student of Sylvius’, Renatus Henerus came to the help of Vesalius and published a defense in 1555. In all probability, Vesalius thanked Henerus by offering him a copy of the freshly published second folio edition of his Fabrica.

Renatus Henerus’ inscription in his Fabrica. © Städel Museum Graphische Sammlung.

Renatus Henerus’ inscription in his Fabrica. © Städel Museum Graphische Sammlung.

The ex-dono note in the Städel copy specifies that Henerus received his copy as a gift from Vesalius in June 1557, which the family clearly prized. Not only did Renerus mark the act of donation, but his son Petrus also carefully read and annotated the volume, paying special attention to biographical details about Vesalius. Underneath the ex-dono inscription, Petrus composed a short note on Vesalius’ career, and also mentioned that his own father came to Vesalius’ help when Sylvius attacked him. Even a generation later, the family still much valued their connection to Vesalius, and used the Fabrica to create a permanent record of this relationship.  Importantly, the Städel copy also contains the annotations of Renatus Henerus, recording his own role in the Sylvius debate.

Renatus Henerus’s note on p. 40. © Städel Museum Graphische Sammlung.

Renatus Henerus’s note on p. 40. © Städel Museum Graphische Sammlung.

Next to one passage, where Vesalius refers to his critics and supporters without naming them, Renatus fills in “Sylvius” for the critic and “Fuchsius et ego” for the supporters. A member of the family also underlined crucial parts of the Fabrica that were a point of contention between Sylvius and Henerus, such as Vesalius’ discussion of the conspicuous foramen (canalis caroticus) and the rete mirabile. It is unclear if Petrus made this note while readering the Fabrica and his father’s work side by side, or Renatus did so to commemorate his own contributions for posterity. It is also possible, though less likely, that Henerus had access to this copy before the official date of donation, and these underlinings reflect his careful reading of the Fabrica, possibly in the company of Vesalius, to mark those passages he wanted to discuss.


We are less certain about the fate of a third copy of the Fabrica, now preserved at the Bibliothèque des Annonciades of Boulogne-sur-Mer in France (Call No.: Rés. f° S1 3341).

Joannes Viringus’ inscription in his Fabrica. © Bibliothèque municipale de Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Joannes Viringus’ inscription in his Fabrica. © Bibliothèque municipale de Boulogne-sur-Mer.

This copy bears the curious note, “Sum Vesalii Viringii,” implying that it once belonged to the author, before passing into the possession of Joannes Viringus, the Dutch translator of the Epitome. Not in the hand of Vesalius, this highly curious note was probably written by Viringus to record the notable previous owner, even if under erasure, and to mark his own, subsequent ownership. While we have no proof that Viringus and Vesalius met in person, they both lived in Flanders in the same period. Viringus may have acquired the volume from Vesalius as a gift, or he could have purchased it from the family after Vesalius’ death, as he was living near Brussels in the 1560s. Viringus also filled the volume with numerous annotations, in part to record his own observations that confirm Vesalius’, in part to clarify Vesalius’ relationship to earlier and later authors, and in part probably to prepare his Dutch translation of the Epitome.

Joannes Viringus compares the Fabrica with the Epitome, p. 249 [349]. © Bibliothèque municipale de Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Joannes Viringus compares the Fabrica with the Epitome, p. 249 [349]. © Bibliothèque municipale de Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Taken together, these three copies thus reveal how Vesalius’ own copies of the Fabrica entered circulation across the social networks of the author, and helped to disseminate Vesalius’ arguments. They could spur the production of new translations, but also could be used as a token of thanks to contemporaries who defended the author. Vesalius’ previous ownership of these volumes was clearly important to the recipients, who made a note of this for posterity. Yet, despite their reverence for Vesalius, they did not treat the Fabrica as an expensive coffetable book. They made their mark in the text with a pen, leaving evidence for future historians about their close engagement with the text and its arguments with other medical authorities in the period.

[1] Vivian Nutton. “Vesalius Revised. His Annotations to the 1555 Fabrica.” Medical History 56 (2012): 415-443.

[2] Vivian Nutton. “More Vesalian Second Thoughts. The Annotations to the Institutiones anatomicae secundum Galeni sententiam, 1538.” Gesnerus 72 (2015): 94-116.

[3] Sold at Christies Sale 8854, New York, March 18, 1998.

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3 Responses to Networking with the Fabrica

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol: #16 | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Andy Fleck says:

    I’m curious about the Viringii note. It seems to be from a Walter (Gualterii) rather than Johannes. Is that significant?

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