Vesalius and the Print Culture: Public Dissection as Intimate Ritual
Published in 1543, Andreas Vesalius' 'De humani corporis fabrica' contains one of the most celebrated and debated images of human dissection. The frontispiece features a large audience around Vesalius himself, who demonstrates the reproductive organs from the uterus of a recently dissected cadaver. Rather than see the image as a reflection of Vesalius's modern or humanist approach to the study of anatomy or as a reflection of an actual public dissection, this essay argues that it is a response to academic debates about the discipline of medicine and to the threats and demands of print technology. Rather than celebrate print for its ability to disseminate his findings, Vesalius seeks to engineer an atmosphere of intimacy around his book. He describes the medical community as a guild, transmitting an embodied form of knowledge and practicing (almost effortlessly) the manual art of dissection. And the frontispiece reconfigures public dissection as an academic ritual in which the homosocial organization of the medical community is thematized as internally active and intimate. In the frontispiece, the public scene of dissection becomes a powerful ritual, capable of reconciling the tactile techniques of dissection with the distanced readership of the book.
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