Skin Deep

Greetings all, it is I, Astor, once again preaching the good word to all of Los Angeles from Speakeasy Tattoo. So, lately my charitably called “free time” has consisted of doing apprenticeship homework, which as you might imagine involves a ton of drawing. So, my go-to set up over these past few weeks has been to get my easel set up by the south facing window, have my iPad ready with any and all reference images, and have my laptop queued to Netflix and all 17 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. Judge all you like, we all have our vices, and mine of late just happens to be soapy hospital procedurals. But, watching the crazy kids of Seattle’s horniest hospital got me thinking about the relationship between medicine and art.

There is obviously a long looong legacy of the interwoven relationship of art and science, specifically medicine, which for much of its history, was taught not by direct observation but through written and artistic instruction. When we think about early anatomical and medical art in Europe the two names that come to most people’s minds are Leonardo and Michelangelo, who are both well known for their cadaver dissections and illustrations but— and not to shade either of them— the real big guns of anatomical art came by way of a Dutch boy named Andreas Vesalius who I am going to be discussing today. Also like, we all know Leo was a genius or whatever but I mean come on, even I could design a helicopter that doesn’t work.

So my guy Andreas was born in Brussels in 1514 to a family of doctors, and so he was set on that track since day one. However, unlike his grandfather who served as Royal Physician to Holy Roman Emperor and noted anti-Semitic shithead Maximilian I, or his father, an apothecarist, Andreas took an interest in the structures of the human body. In fact according to some accounts he was often found investigating the skeletal remains of the unclaimed dead of Paris’s charnel houses when he was a student at the local University. When not messing around with skeletons at some of Europe’s hottest burial sites, he spent his early years questioning the validity of how anatomical medicine was taught. Studying the human body was, up until the renaissance, a bit of a disaster. In part due to prohibitions on human dissection (many anatomists/artists took to grave robbing as a form of guerrilla study), not much had been challenged on the day’s conventional wisdoms regarding how the human body worked. In truth, some of these truisms went back over 1400 years and could trace their origins to classical Rome which, while the ancient Romans killed at making aqueducts, weren’t always on the money when it came to observable science.

The lectures Andreas attended would typically consist of a lecturer reading from a centuries-old Roman text, while a barber-surgeon made cuts in a cadaver. There were a few problems with this method. First and most obvious, the teaching text was literally ancient, and much of what was written about the human body was from assumptions based on the observations of animal anatomy— most commonly Barbary macaques and pigs— which, I’m sure you would notice, are not the same as humans. Second, there was the problem that the anatomist wouldn’t be the one doing the cutting or examining the body up close, so there was a disconnect between the auditory, visual, and kinesthetic aspects of the instruction. Both of these Andreas would address when he began teaching in 1541.

When he was able to finally get up close and personal with an actual bona fide corpse, what did he find? Honestly, more than I could talk about here, but some of his more eye-catching findings were as follows: that the skeletal system was the framework of the body; that men and women had the same number of ribs, and that men DO NOT have more teeth then women (both commonplace beliefs at the time); that an arterial pulse is in synch with cardiac systole; that nerves were how sensations and motions were transmitted… and this is hardly a comprehensive list.

So this is what this man has done for medicine, but what about art? Well in 1543 at the age of 28 he published the monstrous seven-volume anatomical text De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem (or, On the Fabric of the Human Body), a colossus of a magnum opus in which every book gives detailed descriptions of the body’s various anatomical structures. But more to the point it contains some truly baller woodcut illustrations by (most likely, again illustrative art in the Renaissance wasn’t always credited) Jan Steven van Calcar, a former student of Titian. Together the two of them created not just a benchmark work in terms of anatomical text, but a turning point for book art— mixing text, illustration, typography, and formatting to create something truly special. The woodcuts not only show the physical structures of the body, but create scenes in their own right, mixing allegorical elements with medical accuracy. This text is still used today in art schools, the danse macabre of flensed bodies continuing to instruct generation after generation. Furthermore, copies of this book are themselves objets d’art. A copy can be found here in LA County at the Huntington Library. Or, if you want a morbid field trip, you could go to the John Hay Library at Brown University where they have a copy bound in human skin.

Speaking of being bound in human skin, so are you and so am I. We are the bones and muscle and sinew that Vesalius and van Calcar so thoroughly described and depicted. And on that note, a part of me would like to think that given the chance, Andreas Vesalius would have gotten an anatomical tattoo, to memorialize the art of the interior and the art of the exterior in unison.

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