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Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany
by Sachiko Kusukawa

Reviewed by Killian Quigley


Published:

Published by The University of Chicago Press, 2012   |   352 pages

The European Renaissance was a period of marked “heterogeneity” in scientific thought: scholars of botany and medical anatomy were actively embroiled in defining appropriate methods for investigating nature and communicating their findings. Similarly, the printed book remained a newly discovered territory, its variegated and expanding topography not yet mapped, its nature not yet schematized. Renaissance authors worked in a publishing environment fraught with complicated and contingent funding schemes, elusive profits, widespread plagiarism, and tenuous “privilege,” or proto-copyright, arrangements. Sachiko Kusukawa’s Picturing the Book of Nature focuses on the exceptional innovations of three scholars of early modern science, who navigated this infant publishing industry and its high costs, insufficient copyright control, and bewildering logistical complexity. By privileging visual materials in unprecedented ways, they sought to revolutionize the way text and image interact to disclose knowledge of the natural world.

Picturing the Book of Nature urges us to recognize the sixteenth century as an era of contention and becoming, in which the “correct” ways to compose, organize, and scientific texts were heatedly debated. Unsurprisingly, innovative Renaissance thinkers recognized this indeterminacy as a crucial opportunity for paradigm formation. For anatomical and botanical scholars Leonhart Fuchs (1501-66), Andreas Vesalius (1531-64), and Conrad Gessner (1516-65), the book was a fresh and malleable technology, and the question of its optimal organization and use remained open. These authors’ networks of professional correspondence and exchange stretched from Nuremberg to the New World, but Picturing the Book of Nature sets its scene squarely on the printed page. It was there that sixteenth-century scholars of human anatomy and medical botany introduced arguments, claimed credentials, and pitched protracted battles against scientists whose views they opposed.

Through feats of exceptional intellectual and logistical ambition, Fuchs, Vesalius, and Gessner attempted to fundamentally transform the way medical and scientific texts communicate knowledge to readers. These authors’ medical and scientific texts deployed original paradigms of “visual argument” by establishing original – and relentlessly controversial – relationships between word and image. Visual argument here “sought…to exploit the format of the book… to form a full and correct understanding of plants or anatomy in the minds of their readers.” This involved refuting conventional wisdom regarding the value and function of images in conveying information, and entailed challenging students and scholars to read and see differently – to engage with texts and pictures in cognitively and materially unfamiliar ways.

Crucially, the stakes of these debates transcended academic one-upmanship, and even scientific accuracy: through visual argument, these authors sought to elevate medical botany and human anatomy from the status of history – historia – to proper science – scientia. In so doing, they strove to assert, once and for all, the unequivocally scholarly and professional nature of their respective disciplines, and to erect a boundary between disciplinary expertise and amateur knowledge. Fuchs and Vesalius accomplished this, in part, by financing their books’ production mostly or entirely themselves; this investment ensured that each of their woodcut images would be original, and would correspond precisely to the specimen or phenomenon described. It also afforded them control over a complex distribution of labor that included printers, artists, block-painters, and block-cutters. At the center of these complicated networks stood the projects’ prime movers, whose powers of coordination reinforced their – and their disciplines’ – reputations.

Generally speaking, Renaissance medical and scientific texts shared a great deal in common: they were written for university-educated, humanist readers, who were proficient in Latin and reverential toward classical medical and scientific knowledge (and correspondingly disdainful of Arabic commentators on the same subjects). Fuchs, Vesalius, Gessner, and their contemporaries were constantly engaged in complicated negotiations with their adopted classical antecedents. Writers were under pressure to establish their humanist credentials by affiliating themselves with classical sources, while delicately accounting for any perceived divergence between their sources’ findings and their own. This might involve asserting the verity of one classical source over another, offering a novel (and convenient) interpretation of a source, or even correcting a classical text, often to great uproar. Kusukawa’s authors incited the opprobrium of sundry contemporaries by interpreting – and even correcting – classical source materials in order to articulate and validate “visual argument” in its various forms.

In De Historia Stirpium (On the history of plants, 1542), Fuchs – who served as Professor of Medicine at the University of Tübingen from 1534 until his death in 1566 – expounded a theory of plant morphology based on “accidents,” or external features. This approach necessarily privileged the classificatory power of images, and provoked vigorous resistance from Sébastien de Monteux and others. De Historia Stirpium matched contemporary images of medicinal plants with classical descriptions, from Dioscorides’s De materia medica and elsewhere; this enabled Fuchs, who perceived himself as firmly situated in the Galenic tradition, to attempt an expansion and revision of classical knowledge to accommodate heretofore unknown plants, from newly accessible regions like the New World. Fuchs’s images were absolutissima: they were not unmediated (“counterfeit”) representations of the visual world, but idealized amalgamations of their subjects in diverse stages of development and at various times of the year. Crucially – and controversially – Fuchs believed that such images could adjudicate in case of disputes between classical or contemporary sources regarding the identity of specimens. De Historia Stirpium thus accorded images an unprecedented degree of epistemological importance: instead of referring always and only to descriptions in classical texts, one might consult contemporary illustrations.

Conrad Gessner’s unfinished, unpublished botanical commonplace book, Historia Plantarum, deployed a related, rarefied argument as it pursued a comprehensive visual collection of all plants. Each of its images, Kusukawa argues, constituted an “object of study,” a unique tool for acquiring botanical knowledge. These objects did not exist in vacuums – Historia Plantarum imagined its reader consulting images as distinct nodes in a vast web of cross-references – but Gessner nonetheless regarded images as privileged means for recognizing and deciphering “God’s hieroglyphics” in nature. Tantalizingly, Kusukawa’s discussion of Gessner suggests the book as a unique, artificial environment for plants, one immune to the vicissitudes of locale or climate, in which specimens could remain always fresh, and eternally complete. Historia Plantarum, like De Historia Stirpium, is sensitive to the fact that a direct representation (or “counterfeit” image) captures only a single moment in a plant’s life, and that diverse soils and climates may further compromise the potential of a single specimen to be widely representative. Consequently, Gessner’s images of plants are composites, transcending the limitations of space and time to present the most integrative and useful image possible; this distance between image and object powerfully demonstrates the stakes involved in representing ideally what can only be perceived contingently.

Along with these botanical texts, Kusukawa considers Andreas Vesalius’s monumental anatomical textbook, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543), and the practical, interpretive significance Vesalius assigned to anatomical images. In addition to serving as a visual compendium of the human body – enabled by Vesalius’s celebrated dissections, largely unprecedented since classical antiquity – De Humani was revolutionary in its justification of challenges to the ancients based on “ocular belief.” Published while Vesalius was a demonstrator and lecturer in surgery at Padua, De Humani famously featured a contradiction of Galen’s description of the azygos vein; this detail was of special importance to mid-sixteenth century human anatomists like Vesalius, in light of an ongoing debate regarding best practices in bloodletting. Vesalius infuriated various contemporary scholars, first, by disagreeing with Galen, and, second, by justifying his defiance via recourse to visual evidence. Like Fuchs and Gessner, Vesalius thus attached enormous rhetorical and epistemological efficacy to images, even going so far as to introduce and refer to pictures when conducting public dissections. In De Humani, thing, word, and image were intended to collaborate to lead the reader to a profound working knowledge of the “natural” or ideal body; this entailed a reading practice of arguably unparalleled elaborateness, one that necessitated an active and constant engagement with and across words, tables, images, indexes, and so forth.

Despite their originality, Fuchs, Gessner, and Vesalius should not be understood as having effected instantaneous and far-reaching changes among their contemporaries; Kusukawa insists that “no consensus arose in the sixteenth century concerning the status or usefulness of images and visual arguments.” In the epilogue, she cautions us, further, against attempting to read books as reliable predictors of reading behavior – readers could and did interact with texts in materially and intellectually unique ways. Picturing the Book of Nature thus avoids the pitfalls of historical hero-worship, without ever denying its sources’ originality: “Fuchs, Gessner, and Vesalius,” Kusukawa declares, “were probably the first authors who tried to introduce this kind of visual, scientific argument into printed books of nature.”

Like many of its sources, Picturing the Book of Nature is stunningly and extensively illustrated; it embodies and carefully propounds an assiduous attention to the potentialities and limitations of books as material objects that individuals use in specific ways. Still, the book will intrigue – and may frustrate – readers who would prefer that Kusukawa had situated her study more explicitly in social, political, or global contexts: particularly suggestive, and conspicuously underexplored, are the geopolitical connotations of those “New World” plants that Fuchs and others accessed and strove to incorporate into their collections. Vesalius’s procurement methods highlight the troubling intersections between medicine, social inequality, and criminality in the Renaissance: among his “studies” were “the skeleton of a burnt criminal,” stolen from the gallows; “the mistress of a monk of St. Anthony’s at Padua (whose skin was quickly flayed by students in order to prevent identification)”; and “an old woman who starved to death.” Kusukawa rarely lingers over facts like these, and so readers may struggle to situate the study in relation to lives lived – and lost – in sixteenth-century Europe.

Kusukawa’s study has won well-deserved plaudits for its refined and exacting approach to book history, and is vital reading for anyone seeking to understand the exigencies of medical publishing in the Renaissance. By attending with extraordinary care to the materiality of texts and images, it may come as a revelation to readers accustomed to standard social, cultural, or political approaches to history-writing. However, it is also a stirring – and visually stunning – testament to the power, value, and technological specificity of books. Some will perceive this testament with profound ambivalence: in Picturing the Book of Nature, we recognize an increasingly rare artifact, the lavishly-illustrated, meticulously-designed scholarly monograph. It may not explicitly anticipate future directions in academic text- and knowledge-making, but it affirms the historical power of contestation and innovation, and helps teach us to look for transformations to come.


Killian Quigley is an outsized Irish person and hummus cuisinier living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Vanderbilt University, where he reads 18th century British aesthetic theory, travel, and natural history.

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