Illustrated maps of the human body, known as anatomical atlases, have a long history as objects of both scientific and artistic innovation. Anatomy was a subject of great interest early on in the West—notably in the works of Galen (2th c. CE), whose writings were foundational for medicine into the Middle Ages and Renaissance—and human dissection was carried out to a small extent in the antique world. After a hiatus during the early medieval period, fourteenth-century practitioners again began performing anatomies on human cadavers and accompanying their practice with visual guides.
From the sixteenth century onward, these works continued to spread in popularity as anatomy inspired renewed scientific interest and as printing innovations, such as the development of metal plate engraving techniques, permitted increasingly detailed depictions of the body. Many important anatomical atlases, prized not only for their medical content, but also for their artistry, can be found in McGill’s collections.
Early printed anatomy works, such as Johannes de Ketham’s 1500 edition of Mondino dei Luzzi’s Fascilicus medicinae, B.O. 7448, used woodblocks to create non- representational schemata of the human body. The Ketham volume is one of about three hundred incunables in McGill Library. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a new interest in naturalistic portrayals of the human body arose and many new anatomical books appeared, beginning with the famous 1543 De humani corporis fabrica by the Belgian-born, Italian-trained professor of surgery and anatomy, Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564).Vesalius’s work overturned a millennium of thinking on the subject of anatomy.
By the eighteenth century, richly illustrated anatomical atlases had become part of a lay culture of “gentlemanly” science. Charles Nicholas Jenty (dates uncertain) used mezzotint, an intaglio process that involved pitting the metal plate with tiny dots to create half-tones. A striking example of the technique is shown here, from a 1761 edition of Demonstratio uteri praegnantis mulieris cum foetu ad partum maturi, which illustrates the pregnant uterus with a fetus at full term. A book of life-sized anatomical illustrations, the Exposition anatomique de la structure du corps humain by Jacques Gautier d’Agoty (1717–1785) is one early example of colour printing achieved through a four-colour mezzotint process.
Beyond medicine, these medical volumes offer a fascinating way to view changes in illustration techniques. Many examples are part of the Bibliotheca Osleriana, and they complement McGill collections more specifically focused on the history of printing and printing techniques, such as the the William Colgate History of Printing Collection and the Woodblock Collection, as well as the Prints Collection.