In this modern age, so defined by specialization and categorization, we like to keep our art and science separate. A gaggle of chemists might labor over the once-rich indigo or crimson pigments of a painting past its prime, or an artist might employ a gorgeous array of digital pyrotechnics in an installation, but our delight at such interdisciplinary pursuits stems from apparent incongruity, from combining X and Y to make a brand new Z. In contrast, “Vesalius at 500” takes us back to that bygone era of the Renaissance Man, of da Vincis and Galileos and flying machines, when art and science came together so instinctively and so purely, without a second thought.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of Andreas Vesalius, the father of modern anatomy, whose anatomical illustrations appear in “Vesalius at 500,” on view at the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library through Jan. 16. This unobtrusive exhibit boasts a collection of Vesalius’ seldom-seen works, bequeathed by Yale graduate and pioneer neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing. Vesalius himself was a professor of surgery and anatomy who regularly performed his own dissections of human cadavers, a revolutionary practice for the time, and through systematic observation in true Renaissance fashion, he challenged ancient and medieval physiological knowledge. In 1543, he published one of the great texts of the Renaissance, “De humani corporis fabrica libri septem” (Seven books on the fabric of the human body), colloquially known as the Fabrica. Three copies are on view in “Vesalius.”
In fact, the first item in the exhibit is one such copy, open to a woodcut portrait of Vesalius dissecting the muscles of a hand. For all his efforts to accurately depict the human body, this is the only portrait of Vesalius himself modeled from life. Still, don’t take this as any indication of Vesalius’ importance, or rather, lack thereof; on the contrary, a fair amount of exhibit space focuses on Cushing as an avid collector of Vesaliana. On view are some of the neurosurgeon’s letters and diary entries about the sixteenth-century anatomist, who becomes as much a subject of investigation as human anatomy itself.
I was a little surprised to discover that Vesalius himself did not create many of the beautiful illustrations on display — the highly intricate drawings in the Fabrica (the best-known of which is the stunning “Musclemen”), for instance, are attributed instead to Jan Stephan van Calcar. Rather, Vesalius was a mastermind of design. A curator in his own right, he arranged text and image on the page with clarity in mind, often using systems of lettered keys. One of the exhibit’s centerpieces is the large, rich, chaotic title page illustration of the Fabrica, the commission of which was another Vesalian innovation. Funnily enough, a lettered key system is used to explicate that title page, and I can’t help thinking of the parallel between visual composition and anatomical complexity.
The exhibit dutifully offers a selection of other pieces that contextualize and flesh out our understanding of Vesalius’ scientific contributions. (No pun intended.) These pieces aren’t particularly illuminating or shocking, but they’re all useful, from a depiction of a “traditional” dissection to imitations and plagiarisms of Vesalius’ work, translated from the original academic Latin. The latest of such imitations, a two-volume English translation and annotation of the Fabrica, was published only this year.
By dint of its location, “Vesalius at 500” targets the medical crowd more than the art-loving crowd — not that those are mutually exclusive. Still, the exhibit focuses less on the communication of anatomical information — here’s the clavicle, there’s the mandible — than on the process of that communication through design. Moreover, I can’t imagine that the English translation of the Fabrica, though foundational, could be terribly educational for today’s doctors; the appeal is more visual than academic. In a way, though, the illustrations themselves are responsible for their own obsolescence. With their beauty and veracity and the beauty of veracity, these illustrations have enabled the scientific progress that has, in turn, made them more aesthetic than instructional for us. We always talk about art as this big, messy thing that explores why we exist, but these illustrations offer art that explores the science of how we exist, in all our gutsy glory.