Theater of the Body: A Renaissance of Human Anatomy presents an in-depth exploration into the historical origins of modern anatomy. The exhibit consists of digital reproductions of anatomical illustrations from the European Renaissance era, between the 14th and 17th centuries. The Renaissance witnessed a scientific revitalization in human anatomy, challenging traditional medical theories established more than a millenia prior.

Discover the ancient roots of anatomical knowledge, the controversial applications of dissection, the significant contributions of Eastern anatomists, and the technological advancements in anatomical illustration.

This exhibit was curated and created by Matthew Chase, San Marcos Campus Librarian, and contributed by Sophia Shalabi, San Marcos Campus Library Circulation Manager.

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Ancient Anatomists

The medical advances and theories of ancient Greece would have a lasting influence on the development of human anatomy across nearly two millennia. Systematic understanding of the human body via dissection did not initially gain ground in Greek science until the 3rd century BC. Physicians and anatomists instead relied upon knowledge gained from minor surgeries. Dissection was frowned upon for religious, moral, and cultural reasons. The first known ancient Greek physicians to perform systematic cadaveric dissections were Herophilos (335-280 BC) and Erasistratus (c. 304-c. 250 BC). They established a school of medicine in Alexandria, benefiting from their connections to ancient Greek royalty as they regularly received bodies of executed prisoners for scientific discovery. Soon after their deaths, ancient Greek practitioners considered the academic practice of human dissection to be without scientific merit, favoring empirical observation and clinical texts of the past as the basis of anatomic knowledge instead. 

Aristotle (384-322 BC), a prominent natural scientist of his time, is often regarded as the one to first pioneered anatomy as a specialized field of knowledge and study. While there is no evidence that he dissected human cadavers, he instead performed systematic examination of animal bodies. His contributions paved the way for the disciplines of comparative anatomy and human anatomy as we know them today. Aristotle’s innovative anatomic techniques allowed for the development of the principles in scientific description, observation, and language. His structural examination of organs and body parts remain premier examples of anatomical study.

Galen (Greek, c. 130-c. 210 AD), the most famous physician in the Roman Empire, would come to impact the field of human anatomy for well over 1,500 years after his death. He created the experimental method in medical investigation, developed by his anatomical investigation of animal bodies. He made several significant discoveries, ranging from the presentation of the spine to the function of arteries in the body. He would come to organize the wealth of medical knowledge up to that point in history (including the influence of Hippocrates) along with his own anatomical discoveries.

The emergence of Christianity in Europe during the Middle Ages would lead religious and political authorities to prohibit the practice of cadaveric dissection. The western medical community instead relied upon Aristotelian and Galenic theories to guide their clinical practices. It would not be until the European Renaissance in the early 14th century AD that these ancient anatomist traditions would be challenged, including the scientific value of dissection.

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Gaps in the Anatomical Record

While the study of human anatomy is well known for its emergence in Ancient Greece and Renaissance Europe, there are often untold gaps in the history of anatomy, particularly beyond the West. Galen and Aristotle are typically considered the fathers of anatomy, and yet their work derived a great deal from the medical and clinical anatomy theories of Ancient Egypt. Just as important, the gaps in the timeline of anatomy’s development between Ancient Greece and Renaissance Europe are largely left unexplored, leaving the impression that anatomy as a medical and academic discipline remained stagnant until the times of Vesalius, da Vinci, and more modern contemporaries.

Historians have started  paying closer attention now to the significant contributions to anatomy made by Arabic, Muslim, and Persian scholars. While Ancient Greek anatomists like Galen had only dissected animal bodies, human dissection was commonplace in Persia as far back as the 10th millennium BC. The Islamic Golden Age (8th century AD - 14th century AD) introduced major advances in anatomy with the works of anatomists such as Al-Razi (865-925 AD), Ibn Sina (980-1037 AD), and Jorjani (1042-1137 AD), advancing and even correcting popular Galenic theory. Arabic anatomists adapted ancient Greek science into their anatomy education, but actively improved the theories and knowledge traditions. It was a Persian anatomist who created the world’s first colored human anatomy atlas in the 14th century AD. Religious objections to human dissection were raised with the emergence of Islam, but anatomists continued to use animals as their primary sources. 

The influence of other cultures such as China and India cannot be denied as well. Indian culture developed a focus on anatomy education after the 7th century BC. Physicians were trained to systematically dissect human cadavers, gaining precise and accurate knowledge about organs, joints and ligaments, and nerve structures. The introduction of Buddhism, while supporting the advancement of medicine, ultimately led to a prohibition of cadaveric dissection. Indian anatomists maintained a close collaborative partnership with their Arabic counterparts during the Middle Ages. Both groups actively translated each other's textual works of anatomy. Human cadaveric dissection would be later reintroduced into Indian anatomy education around the 16th century AD, under the colonial rule of the Portuguese. Prompted by the European Renaissance at this time, the Portuguese believed human dissection to be imperative for medical advancement.

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Punishment by Dissection

From the times of ancient Egypt and Greece to the 19th century Western world, anatomists had depended on the bodies of executed people, bodies acquired through grave robbing, unclaimed deceased in poorhouses and hospitals, murder victims, and suicides as their main sources of research. As the study of human anatomy became a legitimate and prevalent science during the Renaissance. the demand grew for legalization of dissection and perhaps more importantly, a legal source of human bodies. At this point in history, bodies of the executed became the legal primary source for anatomical dissection. Bodies of the executed were considered prime research material because they were often young and healthy, and the details of death were documented.

Public dissections were increasingly commonplace during the Renaissance, and general audiences perceived dissection as a great dishonor; a violation on the dissected which made their bodies unfit for a funeral. In the centuries that followed the Renaissance, governments would use this public perception as a crime deterrent. Governments would legislate anatomical dissection as part of capital punishment. The line between dissection being a medical practice versus a retributive practice blurred. Horrific examples would emerge during the mass executions and dissections in Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union. While contemporary use of bodies of the executed has greatly decreased as a result of abolition movements against capital punishment and the creation of body donation programs, there continued to be documented cases of using such bodies for anatomical research, including the United States and China.

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The Medical Renaissance

Between the 3rd century AD and the 13th century AD, the western study of anatomy remained focused on Galenic texts and theories. Human cadaveric dissection was prohibited during this period. Anatomical illustration had not been established until the Late Middle Ages and even then, the earliest illustrative representations were still based on Galenic writings and often inaccurate as a result. 

By the turn of the 14th century, there was a growing movement within the medical community to challenge this traditional approach to medicine as well as anatomy. In the beginning, northern Italy was known as the center of this medical renaissance. Human dissection made its return in the latter half of the 13th century, initially with forensic postmortem examinations for legal purposes and subsequently with the first public dissection at a prestigious Bologna medical school around 1300 AD. The larger medical community still supported the Galenic approach to anatomy, which limited its study to a solely academic framework rather than a clinical practice. Galenic traditions remained strong up until the 16th century AD. Attempts to present the inaccuracies in Galenic theories and texts were dismissed as anatomical deformities in the dissected human body, instead of flaws in western anatomical knowledge traditions at that time.

While many anatomists of the European Renaissance would continue to challenge these traditions over the following centuries, Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) would become historically known as the leading figure to establish the practice of human anatomy as a legitimate medical science. Sometimes regarded as the founder of modern anatomy, Vesalius was originally a student of Galenic teachings before challenging the current limitations of anatomical knowledge. Attending public dissections, Vesalius had also actively stole and examined bodies from mass graves of the unclaimed dead as well as executed prisoners from the gallows. After becoming a lecturer at the famous University of Padua, he performed his first human cadaveric dissections. He transformed the role of the anatomy teacher as both a demonstrator and a dissector. An avid supporter and contributor to anatomical illustration, Vesalius achieved global fame and notoriety in 1543 with his anatomy text, De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body). The Fabrica revolutionized western anatomical knowledge, critically evaluating the accuracy and value of Galenic teachings. The text was also transformative for its collaboration among Vesalius as the author, the artists, the woodblock cutters, and the publishing staff to produce this in-depth work of scientific discourse and illustration which had not been accomplished before.

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The Illustrated Human

While the study of anatomy is grounded strongly in the principles of systematic scientific analysis and experimentation, the meaningful power and art behind an anatomical illustration cannot be readily dismissed. Understanding the anatomy and the physiology of a human body would be very difficult to do unless one had firsthand experience in observing or performing a dissection. The anatomical illustration serves three special functions within this context. First, the illustration allows for clarification of the anatomic object in one’s mind. Second, the illustration facilitates the transmission of ideas, whether it is in a classroom, a personal conversation, or an academic journal article. During the Renaissance, anatomists and artists would depict highly accurate and detailed representations of the human body, but they would also often stylize them in dramatized postures or position them against a nature backdrop

During the classical period (700 B.C. to 600 A.D.), anatomical illustration did not yet exist. Observing the teaching principles of Galen, anatomists instead relied upon text-based descriptions of the human anatomy. It was not until the Late Middle Ages when Italian physician, Guido de Vigevano (1280-1349), first pioneered the art of illustration in the anatomical sciences, with drawings of neuroanatomical structures based on written accounts from Hippocrates and Galen. Vigevano prompted a dramatic evolution in the study of anatomy, popularizing the use of illustration. Yet the western dependence on Galenic anatomical models limited these early illustrations to unrealistic and often inaccurate depictions of the human body. The European Renaissance centuries later would witness significant advances in both anatomical thought and illustration technologies.

While illustrations from the Late Middle Ages primarily consisted of handmade drawings, the printing press provided a unique opportunity to diversify the illustration and representation of anatomy through woodcuts, plate and wood engravings, and etchings. Artists, woodblock cutters, and engravers became essential partners for anatomists in disseminating anatomical knowledge. The introduction of these printing technologies allowed for anatomists to produce printed books that combined both textual information and companion illustrations, dramatically enhancing the teachings of anatomy.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), renowned today for his art masterpieces, had been keenly interested in the study of anatomy. His work would greatly influence modern anatomical thought, especially in the realm of illustration. His precise observations of human dissection and highly skilled artistic ability produced a variety of influential illustrations of reproductive systems, extremity structures, and skeletal representations. Particular attention should be paid to da Vinci's focus on rendering the human body at multiple points of view, achieving as close to a three-dimensional model as possible at the time, allowing a person to fully view and learn the human body. The impact of da Vinci's work in anatomy could be observed centuries after his death, even in the works of 18th-century anatomists.

Michelangelo Bounarroti (1475-1564), also known more for his architectural accomplishments, had been personally invested in the theory and study of anatomy. This lifelong interest, beginning in his teens, would even come to be reflected in his work in architecture and painting. Michelangelo actively participated in public dissections and it is believed he may had aspired to become an anatomical scholar. Michelangelo has also been involved at some point in collaborating on an anatomy text, contributing artistic illustrations of anatomic structures, although it is currently unknown whether Michelangelo was able to follow through with the work.

The unauthorized duplication and plagiarism of anatomy texts, particularly the illustrations, was very common during the Renaissance. The works of Vesalius and other leading anatomists were often reproduced without their permission or without credit. Many anatomists would duplicate these works, passing them off as their own to bolster their professional reputations. Some publishers and printers would also take advantage, pirating and reprinting anatomy texts for their own profit. A side effect to this rampant plagiarism is that it allowed for rapid dissemination of information to a wider readership, reinforcing the revolutionary shift in the study of modern human anatomy.

From the Renaissance to today, the tools of anatomical illustration have improved exponentially as we would come to be more familiar with the technologies of lithography, photography, x-ray imaging, and even digital imaging, providing a deeper understanding of the human body.

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Recommended Readings

Alghamdi, M. A., Ziermann, J. M., & Diogos, R. (2017). An untold story: The important contributions of Muslim scholars for the understanding of human anatomy. The Anatomical Record, 300(6), 986-1008. [Access here through Wiley]

Andrioli, G., & Trincia, G. (2004). Padua: The Renaissance of human anatomy and medicine. Neurosurgery55(4), 746-755. [Request through Interlibrary Loan]

Barilan, Y. M. (2005). The story of the body and the story of the person: Towards an ethics of representing human bodies and body-parts. Medicine, Health Care, and Philosophy8(2), 193-205. [Access here through ProQuest]

Bowen, G., Gonzales, J., Iwanaga, J., Fisahn, C., Loukas, M., Oskouian, R. J., & Tubbs, R. S. (2017). Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and his depictions of the human spine. Child's Nervous System33(12), 2067-2070. [Access here through Springer]

Cambiaghi, M. (2017). Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564). Journal of Neurology, 264(8), 1828-1830. [Access here through ProQuest]

Crivellato, E., & Ribatti, D. (2007). A portrait of Aristotle as an anatomist: Historical article. Clinical Anatomy, 20(5), 447-485. [Request through Interlibrary Loan]

Eknoyan, G. (2000). Michelangelo: Art, anatomy, and the kidney. Kidney International, 57(3), 1190-1201. [Access here through ScienceDirect]

Feibel, R. M. (2019). Mortimer Frank, Johann Ludwig Choulant, and the history of anatomical illustration. Journal of Medical Biography, 27(3), 143-149. [Access here through ResearchGate]

Ghosh, S. K. (2015a). Evolution of illustrations in anatomy: A study from the classical period in Europe to modern times: Evolution of illustrations in anatomy. Anatomical Sciences Education8(2), 175-188. [Access here through Wiley]

Ghosh, S. K. (2015b). Human cadaveric dissection: A historical account from ancient Greece to the modern era. Anatomy & Cell Biology48(3), 153-169. [Access here through ResearchGate]

Ginn, S. R., & Lorusso, L. (2008). Brain, mind, and body: Interactions with art in Renaissance Italy. Journal of the History of the Neuroscience17(3), 295-313. [Request through Interlibrary Loan]

Gomes, M. M., Moscovici, M., & Engelhardt, E. (2015). Andreas Vesalius as a Renaissance innovative neuroanatomist: His 5th centenary of birth. Arquivos de Neuro-Psiquiatria73(2), 155-158. [Access here through Arquivos de Neuro-Psiquiatria]

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Guest, R. V., Margocsy, D., & Wigmore, S. J. (2014). Govert Bidloo's liver: Human symmetry reflected. The Lancet383(9918), 688-689. [Access here through ProQuest]

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Loukas, M., Youssef, P., Gielecki, J., Walocha, J., Natsis, K., & Tubbs, R. S. (2016). History of cardiac anatomy: A comprehensive review from the Egyptians to today. Clinical Anatomy, 29(3), 270-284. [Access here through ResearchGate]

Markatos, K., Chytas, D., Korres, D., Laios, K., Androutsos, G., & Chronopoulos, E. (2017). Charles Estienne (1504-1564): His life, work, and contribution to anatomy and the first description of the canal in the spinal cord. World Neurosurgery, 100, 186-189. [Access here through ScienceDirect]

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