The Idealised Style of Vesalius's Fabrica Illustrations: Art, Nature and Aesthetics
Vesalius wrote nothing about the aesthetics of the anatomical illustrations found in his De humani corporis fabrica (1543). There are, however, two passages in this work that offer a starting point for an investigation into the illustration’s idealised style. In discussing the body that is best for a public dissection Vesalius says that it must be one that resembles the ‘Canon of Polycleitus’, and later, he refers to his pursuit of the historia absoluti hominis or historia of the perfect man. These two passage lie at the heart of a solution to questions concerning the style of Vesalius’s illustrations. This thesis seeks to investigate the role that visual material (art) played in determining the visual character of Vesalius’s natural philosophical illustrations. In antiquity art and nature were generally thought to be opposed. This distinction was undermined in the sixteenth century as images came to play a role in acquiring and conveying knowledge about the natural world. The role that art played in determining the visual character of Vesalius’s illustrations, I argue, constitutes another facet of the undermining of the ancient opposition between art and nature that occurred in the sixteenth century. The relationship between art and nature forms the basis of my investigation into the style of Vesalius’s illustrations. I examine three separate but interrelated avenues which, I suggest, played a role in determining the style of the Fabrica illustrations. The first derives from the history of natural philosophy and medicine. I suggest that the concepts art, nature, teleology, form and beauty as they are found in Plato’s Timaeus, and Marsilio Ficino’s sixteenth-century commentary on that work, provide an epistemology and account of the body that is also found in Galen’s On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body, and subsequently reflected in both the text and illustrations of the Fabrica. This epistemological underpinning is entirely in keeping with the method of proportional representation of the body and associated aesthetic advocated in Polycleitus’s Canon. The second avenue concerns the role that both ancient and Renaissance artworks played in determining the style of the Fabrica illustrations. While the illustrations embody the ideal and typical form advocated in the Canon they also embellish this, and contain stylistic features derived from Hellenistic sculpture and found in High Renaissance art. I argue for specific parallels between Hellenistic sculpture, Michelangelo’s nudes in his Sistine Chapel frescos and Vesalius’s illustrations. Thirdly, I consider Renaissance artwriting and aesthetics as a source for understanding the idealised style of the Vesalian illustrations. In particular I examine Leon Battista Alberti’s tabulation of the ideal man and his aesthetic principle concinnitas. This offers a Renaissance account of beauty and the ideal that is analogous to the Canon of Polycleitus, is central to an understanding of Italian Renaissance art and aesthetics, and has a particular application to Vesalius’s illustrations and their teleological underpinnings. I suggest that contrapposto as the expression of antithesis in art offers a theoretic parallel for the augmentation of the austere classical style found in Vesalius’s own use of contrapposto and his interest in musculature and movement. Throughout, this thesis is concerned with relationships between visual materials. I elaborate on this theme through an investigation of the influence that Vesalius’s illustrations had on a selection of anatomical illustrations that came in its wake. I construe the relationships that obtain between these illustrations as analogous to those which occur in what are termed art historical ‘movements’.
Advisor: Collard, Judith; Anstey, Peter
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: History and Art History
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: Vesalius; Aesthetics; medical; illustration; Galen; Ficino; Fabrica; Canon; Idealisation; art; nature; Polycleitus; absoluti; Plato; Timaeus; Alberti; Concinnitas; teleology; contrapposto; Renaissance; antithesis; Sixteenth; Century; Seventeenth
Research Type: Thesis