Hand-colored woodcut from the first edition of Vesalus

Hand-colored woodcut from the first edition of Vesalus's Epitome in Cambridge University Library. CCF.46.36.

Detail map of Rosental, Basel, Basel-Stadt, Switzerland Overview map of Rosental, Basel, Basel-Stadt, Switzerland

A: Rosental, Basel, Basel-Stadt, Switzerland

Simultaneously with the "Fabrica" Vesalius Issues a Condensation, or Road-Map, of the Encyclopedic Work

Hand-colored woodcut titlepage in the first edition of Vesalius

Hand-colored woodcut titlepage in the first edition of Vesalius's Epitome from Cambridge University Library CCF.46.36.

Shortly after publishing his encyclopedic De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, Andreas Vesalius issued De humani corporis fabrica epitomealso from the press of Johannes Oporinus of Basel. This thin set of 14 unnumbered leaves, each containing images and text, and published in large folio format even larger than the Fabrica, was an outline, or precis, or road-map of essential information contained in the Fabrica, including some different and spectacular larger images. This was the first time that the author of a revolutionary medical or scientific work issued a condensation of his essential information roughly simultaneously with the main publication.

Vesalius suggested that the large sheets of the Epitome might be mounted on the walls of dissection rooms as a guide to dissection. As a result, relatively few sets of the sheets were bound up as books, and only a small portion of the original printing survives.

While the Fabrica was a very expensive encyclopedic work, Vesalius' Epitome, though larger in format, was a much less expensive work that presented essential anatomical information in a concise, comparatively easy to understand manner. It became far more widely published and distributed than the Fabrica. By August 9,1543  Vesalius published a German translation of the Epitome in Basel, and many plagiarisms and adaptations of the Epitome were published in various European countries, in a wide variety of formats, throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Because of its much wider publication and distribution, even more than the Fabrica, Vesalius' Epitome was the publication that revolutionized the teaching and study of human anatomy.

The Epitome’s nine anatomical woodcuts are divided into two skeletal, four muscular and two circulatory charts, plus a neurological chart, each drawn with great attention to detail. The skeletal, muscular and one of the circulatory plates are similar, but not identical, to plates found in the Fabrica; the Epitome’s plates are larger, the figures in slightly different attitudes and less space is devoted to background scenery (leaf K1 duplicates the Fabrica’s celebrated thinking skeleton, but with the inscription on the pedestal changed). The remaining circulatory plate and the neurological plate are reproduced, with different text, on the two folding plates found in the Fabrica; the plate on M1 appears on leaf p4 of the Fabrica, and the plate on [N]1 (minus the accompanying organs) appears on the leaf m3. In addition to these nine anatomical plates, there are in the Epitome two stunning woodcuts of a nude male and nude female figure, accompanied by long descriptions of the surface regions of the body; nothing like them appears in the Fabrica. The Epitome’s title-page woodcut and portrait of Vesalius are from the same blocks used in the earlier work.

Most known copies of the Epitome are incomplete. According to the final paragraph of leaf M1, the work was issued in separate sheets and not intended to be bound together. The last two unsigned sheets (Cushing’s [N]1 and [O]1) are especially rare, as they were printed with individual parts of the body to be cut out and assembled into two figures, male and female.

Cushing, Bio-bibliography of Andreas Vesalius (1943) VI B-1.

The University of Cambridge Digital Library provides a digital facsimile of their possibly unique copy of the Vesalius Epitome with original hand-coloring of all the woodcuts and woodcut intials at this link.

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