Sunday, September 22, 2013

Neurological Art History

“Wound man” woodcut by Johannes de Ketham, originally appearing in Fasciculus medicinae (1491). This image is from Fasiculo de medicina (1494), a translation into Italian by Sebastiano Manilio.

We rationalize, we dissimilate, we pretend: we pretend that modern medicine is a rational science, all facts, no nonsense, and just what it seems. But we have only to tap its glossy veneer for it to split wide open, and reveal to us its roots and foundations, its old dark heart of metaphysics, mysticism, magic and myth. Medicine is the oldest of the arts, and the oldest of the sciences: would one not expect it to spring from the deepest knowledge and feelings we have?

-Oliver Sacks, Awakenings

Is medicine an art or a science? Now you don't have to decide! Volume 203 of Progress in Brain Research examines the historical relationship between art and neurology.

The Fine Arts, Neurology, and Neuroscience: Neuro-Historical Dimensions begins with the Renaissance anatomists, including the prolific Andreas Vesalius, author of the seven-volume De humani corporis fabrica (On the fabric of the human body). Illustrated anatomy textbooks were a still novelty at this time, and Vesalius was controversial for overturning some of Galen's tenets from the 2nd century AD, including the theory of animal spirits. The realistic woodcut illustrations in De humani were based on careful dissection of human cadavers (Russell, 2013).

Andreas Vesalius (1543). De Humani Corporis Fabrica, Plate 49. Brain with seven cranial nerves. Woodcut.

The talented artist is often assumed to be Jan Steven van Calcar from the studio of Titian, but the actual identity of this person(s) is unclear (Russell, 2013):
But who were the artists? Who created such compelling images? Vesalius neither identifies nor acknowledges his exceptional artist(s) or his woodblock cutters. The absence of their identity has remained a subject of debate. 

Proto-Bloggers or Plagiarists?

Vesalius tried valiantly to preserve his intellectual property from unlawful reproduction, to no avail. This is a bit ironic, since he never gave credit to the artists, and even seemed a bit annoyed with them (Lanska & Lanska, 2013):

In 1546, 3 years after publication of the first edition of the Fabrica, Vesalii expressed frustration at the plurality of artists he had supervised: “[No longer] shall I have to put up with the bad temper of artists and sculptors [wood-block cutters] who made me more miserable than did the bodies I was dissecting” (translation in O’Malley, 1964, p. 124).

Regardless of Vesalii’s frustrations with the artists, the beauty, accuracy, and utility of these woodcuts led to frequent plagiarism, despite Vesalii’s attempts to protect his work with the various privileges that were listed at the foot of the title page.

Piracy and plagiarism of images vs. "fair use" for educational [or entertainment] purposes isn't a new problem that began with commercialization of the internet in 1995, nor with the rise in the popularity of Tumblr about four or five years ago.1

Lanska and Lanska (2013) raised the issue of how the printing press made image theft easier in their chapter on Medieval and Renaissance anatomists: The printing and unauthorized copying of illustrations, and the dissemination of ideas:
With the advent of the printing press and moveable type at this time, printed books began to supersede hand-copied medieval manuscripts, and labor-intensive techniques were soon developed to integrate text and illustrations on the printed page. The same technology was used to pirate the illustrations of prior authors with varying fidelity.  ...  The most important milestone in the development of anatomy and anatomical illustration was the publication in 1543 by Andreas Vesalii of De humani corporis fabrica. With this work, Vesalii succeeded in coordinating a publication production team (author, artists, block cutters, publisher, and typesetters) to achieve an unprecedented integration of scientific discourse, medical illustration, and typography. However, despite Vesalii’s valiant efforts to prevent unauthorized duplication, the illustrations from the Fabrica were extensively plagiarized. Although Vesalii found such piracy frustrating and annoying, the long-term effect was to make Vesalii’s ideas known to a wider readership and to help solidify his own revolutionary contributions to anatomy.

Vesalius was angry because of the amount of work he put into the dissections, but the benefit was greater exposure of his ideas and an increase in stature.  Kind of like high profile (non-critical) science blogging?? 2  Except unauthorized reproduction was more laborious in the 16th century... e.g. copying woodcuts prints in a close but approximate form by freehand engraving onto copper plates (Lanska & Lanska, 2013b).  But at least one imitator did give him credit and even corrected his mistakes:
Vesalius bitterly complained about Valverde's unauthorized abridgement of his work: “Valverde who never put his hand to a dissection and is ignorant of medicine as well as of the primary disciplines, undertook to expound our art in the Spanish language only for the sake of shameful profit.” (O'Malley translation).  Nevertheless, Valverde did make several corrections to the images (e.g., anatomy of the extraocular muscles), described the intracranial course of the carotid arteries, and made the first drawing of the stapes. In addition, Valverde acknowledged using illustrations from Vesalius because, “his illustrations are so well done it would look like envy or malignity not to take advantage of them.”

modified from Figure 2 (Lanska & Lanska, 2013b). The left set of 7 black-and-white images are from Vesalius' Fabrica ... Individual woodcuts have been arranged in a montage, corresponding to that from a single copperplate engraving in Valverde's abridgement shown on the right. The entire Vesalius montage is an approximate mirror image of the single-page, multi-image print in Valverde's abridgement. Dissection stages, brain levels, and structures illustrated all correspond closely. Note the absent mustache in the third stage of the dissection in prints from both Vesalius and Valverde. Shading is absent in the Valverde copperplate images, and there are minor differences in both perspective and fine details (e.g., the pattern of the gray-white junction, branching pattern of the middle meningeal artery, and features of the corresponding mustaches).

The chapters in this volume make for fascinating reading and cover not only these early artistic contributions to the neurosciences, but also include neuroscientists with artistic talent (e.g., Santiago Ramón y Cajal) and artists with neurological disorders (e.g., Giorgio de Chirico, who may have had complex partial seizures or migraine with visual auras).


1 No one ever knows the actual origin of images on tumblr, do they? Just try to find out who created this Black Cat Club image...

2 Obviously, the images in this post are hundreds of years old (and in the public domain). In the last few years, I've become more sensitive to the issue of copyright infringement and try not to do this. I assume that judicious reproduction (and appropriate attribution) of figures from journal articles falls under "fair use." I haven't made one cent from this blog so I'm certainly not profiting from others' work.


Lanska DJ & Lanska JR (2013). Medieval and Renaissance anatomists: The printing and unauthorized copying of illustrations, and the dissemination of ideas. Progress in brain research, 203, 33-74. PMID: 24041276

Lanska DJ, Lanska JR (2013b). Juan Valverde de Hamusco's unauthorized reproduction of a brain dissection by Andreas Vesalius. Neurology 80:852-6.

Russell GA (2013). Vesalius and the emergence of veridical representation in Renaissance anatomy. Progress in brain research, 203, 3-32. PMID: 24041275

Another "wound man"

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At September 22, 2013 6:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At September 23, 2013 3:58 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hey, love your blog. I think you'd really enjoy this video which considers the consequences neuroscientific evidence has for the old ideas about selfhood and the soul:


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