Art and the Brain: Chapter 4. The Brain Exposed & Printed

Topics include:

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519)
Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564)
Printmaking and Knowledge Practices


Looking at the Fabrica’s impact it is interesting to speculate on why Nicolas Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (Concerning the revolutions of the celestial spheres) and Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica (Concerning the fabric of the human body), both published in 1543, are treated so differently today. Both books directly challenged generally accepted and long taught ways of looking at the world. Yet it seems the Copernican challenge has received more attention in general history books. Perhaps Copernicus’ work is considered easier to grasp because he developed a clear reconceptualization, whereas Vesalius essentially added accurate detail to a complex body of knowledge? Whatever the reason, the less familiar story of Vesalius’ contributions seems more in line with the focus on the biological and physiological brain in our time. He not only provided a foundation for the modern disciplines of human and comparative anatomy and physiology, he was also among the first to actually codify the structures of the human body through direct dissections. Furthermore, although the text of the Fabrica was flawed and not widely read, the illustrations firmly established that visual methods were essential for understanding bodily structure.

When the proliferation of images in our world today is explained in terms of a trajectory originating with the invention of photography early in the 19th century, the scenario speaks to the development of a tool to dependably fix once-transient images. This chapter demonstrated that reproduction technologies have a much longer history. Even before the invention of movable type, wax modeling aided visualization, as did illuminated manuscripts and popular hand-made books that included visual imagery. With the printing press, the books had a different character, much as an e-book and a hard copy differ today. As many today lament the loss of “real” books, earlier transformations, too, had pros and cons. Despite the evident beauty of the luxurious illuminated manuscripts of earlier epochs and their equally fine bindings, these splendid books were replaced by more easily obtained printed publications that were largely monochromatic and less concerned with aesthetic qualities. Even into the twenty-first century, books on all topics (including art) were weighed toward what could be inexpensively conveyed in a black and white format.

In summary, even when lawful, dissection was not fully a medical practice. Moreover, many who made medical images were trained artists (Kemp and Wallace 2000), a point discussed in more detail in later chapters. That they continued to paint and sculpt for both artistic and medical purposes speaks to the long, collaborative history of art and science. It is as easy to argue that innovative illustrations helped bootstrap medical practices as it is to say that medical knowledge was not at a point where practitioners could actually use the level of detail the imagemakers were presenting. Both of these points are evident in the next chapters, where I turn to collaborative 17th century projects.

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