Given the flood of publications on early modern natural history over the last two decades, the detailed and strikingly illustrated study “Picturing the Book of Nature” represents a herculean undertaking.
Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany by Sachiko Kusukawa, University of Chicago Press, 352 pages, $45.
By Justin Grosslight
It is well understood that images were central to early modern book production. But the issues raised regarding their authority and credibility, especially in natural history and anatomical texts, have not been well explored in depth. Sachiko Kusukawa’s detailed and strikingly illustrated study, Picturing the Book of Nature, remedies the situation, examining the ways images affected scientific thinking in the sixteenth century.
Kusukawa focuses her arguments on the careers of Bavarian medical botanist Leonhart Fuchs (1501–1566), the Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564), and the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner (1516–1565). She shows how scholars of the time — by interpreting images along with the accompanying text — learned to structure their ideas in new ways. This, in turn, allowed them to reformulate how they looked at earlier scholarship.
In advancing its argument, Picturing the Book of Nature transitions gracefully from addressing general print concerns about illustrated texts to examining these themes in pictures of medicinal plants and ultimately to images of human anatomy. By moving toward greater specificity, Kusukawa connects specific debates and general trends, thus underscoring the symbiotic relationship between botany and medicine that characterized natural history during the period.
The first part of Kusukawa’s book addresses general print issues that cast light on the book’s case studies. The use of images and color added significant costs to printing a text. Though woodcut images were cheaper than copperplate engravings to produce, authors often shared, stole, or repeated images to cut down on printing costs. Similarly, authors and printers financed and controlled production of their texts in various ways, protecting intellectual property rights through various kinds of legalized privileges.
Each of these issues affected Kusukawa’s exemplars. Unlike many of their counterparts, Fuchs and Vesalius disdained the repeated use of images in their texts. Fuchs in particular valued woodcut images. In the case of Vesalius, visuals were important because they contributed to the sale of his work. Both authors were also subject to juridical constraints. Vesalius obtained a privilege to protect the contents his work, while the crippling effects of the Counter-Reformation hindered the expansion of Fuchs’s and Gessner’s texts into Catholic territories. Because their books were scholarly in nature, they incurred the additional costs of classical fonts, indices, and the need for continual corrections while being printed.
The heart of Kusukawa’s study is her thoughtful discussion of Leonhart Fuchs’s De historia stirpium (1542). Building on the work of scholars such as Claudia Swan and Brian Ogilvie, she shows how Fuchs exploited morphological techniques to revive as well as to rebuke classical medical knowledge. By emphasizing the role of accidents, features that were not ‘perfect,’ Fuchs rejected “counterfeit” or idealized representations of nature. Rather than having a single light source, plant images were given a panoptical light source to help illuminate details of their shape. Furthermore, image were rendered ‘absolute’ via a single portrait that combined buds, flowers, and fruits together with rich colors. Complicated by historical, geographic, and medicinal descriptions, Fuchs’s work critiqued the classical canon.
But pictures were not the only medium used to assess ancient medical knowledge. While for Fuchs understanding Greek medicine involved combining his own pictures with reason and experiment, the Saxon humanist Janus Cornarius dismissed visual arguments in favor of the exegesis of Pedanius Dioscorides (Master Herbalist, Father of Pharmacy). Challenging the latter’s classical knowledge, De historia stirpium was reproduced widely in various sizes and vernacular forms shortly after its debut. Images, therefore, both augmented Fuchs’s status and availed themselves to lay readers for promoting medical awareness.
Especially welcome are the book’s chapters on Conrad Gessner. Perhaps best known by scholars for his zoological compendium, Historia animalium (1551–58), Gessner also managed a widespread botanical community for the production of his uncompleted volume on plants, Historia plantarum. In order to create an encyclopedic vision for this work, Gessner solicited botanical specimens and portraits from his correspondents to complement plants that he had cultivated himself. Artists were hired by Gessner to help depict flora that he had collected. Yet even here, Gessner intervened to correct details in the drawings. Blemishes on specimens were removed to make plants appear bold in color and shape, thereby depicting ideal images. To facilitate his understanding of certain specimens -— especially unknown ones —- Gessner took commonplace notes. Margins of texts and images were marked, and cross-references were cited to compare various reports on specific plants. Images, therefore, were important for the production of books, as well as for the texts in their completed form.
Gessner’s images also served as a focal point for dispute over a medicinal plant with the Italian naturalist Pietro Andrea Mattioli. Both men disagreed over the identity of Dioscorides’s aconitum pardalianches, and both used images to substantiate their claims. Analysis of their debate reveals that, though images were crucial for identifying medicinal plants, claims to pictorial veracity did not necessarily need to rely on accompanying texts. This was a necessary criterion for Gessner, who invited witnesses to support his arguments. Mattioli, however, attempted to align his images with Dioscorides and cited his large images and exorbitant print run as proof of his claim. Disagreements of this nature reveal the contested space of images and somewhat overlooked international flavor of the naturalist community in the sixteenth century.
Kusukawa’s chapters on medical botany dovetail nicely into analysis of Vesalian anatomical images. Beginning with a heated debate on bloodletting, Vesalius concluded that Galen’s classical medical authority was at variance with his own findings. Galen noted that the azygos vein traveled under the heart, but Vesalius believed that the vein traveled through it. His beliefs were confirmed by witnesses and supported through drawing the vein “in the manner of mathematicians.” Unlike a mimetic sketch, drawing in this mode furnished a schematic through which general properties could be adduced. Similar pictorial techniques appeared in De humani corporis fabrica (1543), where images construed a “canonical” or ideal human body. In discarding purposeless structures of the human body and emphasizing standard forms through pictures, Vesalius was able to whet his pedagogical aims and levy critiques against Galen.
Not all of Vesalius’s contemporaries, however, utilized his pictorial methods. Jacques Dubois, Vesalius’s medical teacher in Paris, eschewed images in preference for a historical interpretation of the human body that vindicated Hippocratic and Galenic texts. While Dubois rebuffed images outside of the dissection hall, the Italian anatomist Bartolomeo Eustachi used his own pictures of specific organs together with grids for locating details to comprehend the human body. Examining variants on many specific organs provided Eustachi more sustenance than standardized images in anatomy; they even helped him support Galen over Vesalius in the location of the azygos vein. Still other readers supported Veslius in their own way. The Swiss physician Felix Platter created smaller texts and a separate miniature volume of Vesalian images to forge anatomical claims through a tabular method. Many of Vesalius’s contemporaries, therefore, had their own schemes for accepting or rejecting anatomical claims through the use of images.
While historians have viewed Fuchs, Gessner, and Vesalius as archetypes of their genre, not all of these naturalists’ pictorial claims were novel. Kusukawa herself notes that, though Vesalius’s thoughts were contentious, themes of critiquing Galen and using animal bones to comprehend human anatomy were not newfangled motifs. Nor should readers fall into the trap of believing that Fuchs, Gessner, and Vesalius were the first to use images as mediation between actual specimens and an ideal type: though working in different media, Albrecht Dürer’s watercolors and Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches of anatomical structures militate against such a claim. Furthermore, some of Kusukawa’s conclusions on Vesalius are not entirely novel: Andrea Carlino has advanced related arguments from a more textual viewpoint. What is striking in Kusukawa’s thesis, however, is that her protagonists were “making their knowledge ‘scientific’ by their own learned standards, and pictures were an integral part of that process.”
Articulating the emergence of visuals as scientific knowledge is Kusukawa’s greatest achievement. Though there was no uniform way to interpret images in the sixteenth century, various individuals came up with ways to analyze pictures with accompanying texts. Such knowledge was used as a pedagogical tool — not only to advance one’s claims but also to critique classical authorities.
Given the flood of publications on early modern natural history over the last two decades, executing a novel study on this subject represents a herculean undertaking. Kusukawa’s command of primary sources is impressive, and she addresses historiographic lacunae with gusto. But at this point studies on early modern natural history may have run their course. Writing on images with a focus on pictorial details is, perhaps, a final and necessary step in studying a topic that already has been well exploited for its sociocultural, material, and epistemic insights. Picturing the Book of Nature is a captivating read whose content lives up to its title and subheadings, though it serves as more of an end than a beginning of speculation about the evolution of the book and our knowledge of natural history.