Lab Report #5: Rare Books (Vesalius & Digby)


Vandreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica (1543) and Everard Digby’s De arte natandi (1587) are a mere 44 years apart in publication dates, which make them ideal for comparison and contrast. For one thing, both manuscripts were both great undertakings by both of their authors. Vesalius’s codex was considered a groundbreaking account of human anatomy, because Vesalius dissected corpses on his own in order to produce the material to the deep level of detail that he managed to convey. Digby’s manuscript was unique in that he was determined to capture the art of swimming in a manual for teaching. Both of the manuscripts were written in Latin, which was a language that was only used if the author was determined to have his work taken very seriously. While Vesalius’ work was lauded for what he achieved, Digby’s was treated as less important during its time, despite his goal of turning swimming into a more aristocratic practice. Through an examination of both of these as physical manuscripts, it becomes more evident of this phenomenon.

fig. 1. Look at all this wasted outer margin space! (Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica)

The size is the first detail that I noticed about the two manuscripts, where the Vesalius is much larger and likewise, Digby’s manuscript is smaller, leading us to infer that they were printed as a folio and quarto, respectively. The difference in the Vesalius being a folio makes it much more expensive to produce in comparison to the Digby. Looking at the book margins as well, indicates that the Vesalius manuscripts does not utilize the full space of each page in the same way that the Digby manuscript does.

fig. 2. Does Vesalius’ manuscript make Digby’s look thrifty or economical? (Digby, De arte natandi)

Another similarity between the two lies in both authors’ usage of woodblock printings in their work, not only to supplement their findings but as a key component of their separate demonstrations of information. Vesalius had gone through great lengths to ensure that his work was of the utmost quality, and it shows through the over 200 woodcuts that were produced by a group of skilled artists integrated throughout his text. Not only are they useful in the sense of portraying a more accurate anatomy that the medical world of that time were acquainted with, they are aesthetically pleasing as well, often containing elaborate background details and intricate poses that are considered “allegorical.”

Woodblocks were used at this time for illustration because they allowed for fine details, which is also evident in the details of the Digby manuscript- however, it is clear that these illustrations were made as economically sound as possible while keeping with that standard of detail. Flipping through to various pages, the background of the pictures seem to remain the same, while the middle piece demonstrating the stroke or other part of swimming methodology is that part that is switched out. This allowed for the 40 or so woodblocks that were needed to be made to be made smaller than they would have to have been to produce the same size illustration, as the landscape block had already been set the one time.

Though Vesalius work was considerably expensive, he managed to regain his expenses and fame to go along with that. Digby’s work was translated into English in 1595, but neither the English nor Latin versions earned him the same kind of impact that Vesalius’ manuscript did. Despite this, De arte natandi is still important as it is the first of its kind in detailing how swimming practices were accomplished in England, just as De humani corporis fabrica is famed for its revolutionary anatomical accuracy.

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