Mapping the Materials of the Human Body

The pine planks displaying the configuration of veins in the human body that John Evelyn bought in Italy from a dissector of anatomy at the annual university dissection in 1646 gained immediate value as a depiction of the body’s inner structure.  Anatomical dissections that divided a corpse into its constituent bones, muscles, veins, arteries, nerves, and organs had been conducted at the medical university for over a century, and a permanent theater had been built at the imposing medical university’s building for some fifty years, if dissections had been long integrated into the academic teaching calendar; Evelyn felt privileged to have bought the planks on which the extracted veins were preserved and affixed onto the wooden planks, apparently covered with varnish, not only as a souvenir but as a teaching aid, bringing them back to England.  When Evelyn returned to England, where he had the tables shipped, he remembered how he had approached Johann Vesling’s surgical assistant, “of whom I purchased those rare Tables of Veines & Nerves & causd him to prepare a third of the Lungs, liver & Nervis . . . with the Gastric vains, which I transported to England” which he believed them “the first of that kind had ben ever seene in our Country, & for ought I know, in the World.”

Evelyn remembered with excitement watching the dissection of a male body, female body, and child by Giovanni Leoni d’Este, the dissector working with Vesling, and how the surgeon was expert at the task of “extracting the Veines and other vessels which containe the Blood, spirits &c. out of human bodys, . . . to distend and apply them on Tables according to their natural proportion and situation.”  Leoni d’Este showed the elegance and virtuosity to display the body that was expected at the annual dissections in Padua’s university, long an attraction and destination for medical students, since the creation of a permanently standing “theater” of anatomy in 1594.  Vesling was the successor to Giulio Casseri and Girolamo Fabrici, surgical doctors and pioneers of the use of visual aids to anatomy that surpassed the multi-panelled woodblock prints Vesalius had designed in six elegant tables for students in 1537 and expanded to a folio-sized book in 1543.  For his part, Fabricius had created cross-species anatomical atlases in colorful paints.  But these boards, if few survive, seem to have been regular teaching aids in the anatomy lessons that attracted students from all Europe, held in a permanent wooden theater in the form of an oculus at whose center lay a marble table, ringed with benches of steep grade.

Lauren Fried aptly wrote recently that the planks “looked like something a cartographer had given some serious time to fantasising about,” in a recent review of the multiple exhibits on the dissection of human anatomy showcased this year at both the  Hunterian Museum and Wellcome Collections in London, as well as Resurrection Men, at the Royal College of Physicians.  The intensity of a detailed cartographical rendering is evident, whatever the format and resolution of your screen:




The popularity of such traveling exhibits suggest the huge interest in the market for medical museums and the public display of bodily insides of which Evelyn’s “Tables” are something of a seventeenth century precedent. But the model of mapping, an innovative tool of demonstration and display Evelyn’s time, were more the prototype and model for the planks Leoni d’Este helped fabricate than the far more spectacular types of display of body parts in the contemporary exhibits that have been widely marketed in the United States as “Bodies–the Exhibit”” in recent years.

The darkened rooms, wax-museum like uncanniness, and oddly posed mute expressivity of these plastinated corpses of uncertain provenance are something like the spectacle of the anatomy lessons of past years in the traveling exhibit, a new height in our Debordian society of the spectacle.  Given the spectacular origins of the tables that Evelyn procured, it’s not surprising the pine planks he had shipped to London recall the traffic in foreign body parts that make up the exhibit on plastinated bodies that has been traveling the world.  The exhibits in London seem something like a British response to the traveling exhibits on body-parts procured from Chinese prisons–before setting up grounds at the Luxor in Las Vegas, as well as in Atlanta in New York–as well as a way to drum up further tourism from the rather eclectic collections of the Welcome Trust.  Surely these tables, elegant in the extreme, have gained a second life in comparison to the rather gruesome unveiling of flayed corpses in this show, most procured in a dubious manner, that has enjoyed such success for audiences of all ages.

Bodies–the Exhibition is promoted as a pedagogic aid:  “discover how to enlighten, inform, and inspire your students to learn about the human body,” enjoins the website’s special section for educators, arguing in hygienic (rather than biomedical) terms that by understanding “how the body works” student’s can better learn how to keep it healthy.  Multiple ethical questions about the origins of these bodies, and the trafficking in these multiple body parts–preserved by techniques of polymer plastination pioneered by Gunther von Hagens to forestall bodily putrification in organs or tissues by removing all fluids in tissues by a (patented) process of “forced vacuum impregnation.”  (Ethical questions around their origins abound, but the show was so popular that it is now booked permanently next to artifacts from the Titanic, as if both shockers could put the losses of gamblers into perspective in a bracing fashion.  But both are billed as hands-on educational experiences.) Recent entries on the exhibit’s blog however debate the benefits and healthiness of dark and white meat of turkeys, which is more of what might be going through your mind as you leave the rooms, trying to distance the fact that these are actual people’s body parts, moved under stage lights for public consumption after no doubt pretty tragic if not grizzly deaths, as a spectacle for the public good. (It might even be for the kids in a family trip:  “‘This exhibition taught my students more than I could ever teach them with mere words,'” reads an unattributed endorsement displayed prominently on this website, inviting schools the Las Vegas NV, New York, or Atlanta areas to book a class trip.  It would at least provide material for discussion that would not leave their attention spans.)

So what of mapping?  If the “Bodies” exhibit is an immersive spectacle that might nicely punctuate the boring routine of the school day, Freid’s comparison of the Evelyn tables to maps has a nice historical ring:  mapping is a classic form of distantiation, and would have been perceived as such.  If we are impressed with the formal parallels Freid noted, this sort of combination of a printed genre was more recognizable during the rapid increase of printed maps and images over the sixteenth century, when the production of new genres of printed engraved images rapidly grew.  In his 1502 treatise on human anatomy, which lacked illustrations, the Venetian physician Alessandro Benedetti invoked nautical maps produced by sailors as an analogy to describe the value of transmitting knowledge by images.  At the same time as the ancient geographer Claudius Ptolemy’s precepts for conformal map projections were revised by recent findings registered in sailors’ manuscript portolan charts, he noted the huge value of recent atlases of nearby Adriatic islands or the Greek peninsula in marine charts as wonderful addition to geographic maps, distinguishing the practical knowledge of mariners’ maps at the time when images had limited prestige or clear social niche as media of learning.  The terrestrial and island maps were both powerful models for keeping one’s visual distance, and objectifying a collective record of sense-perceptions, as much as offering a comprehensive synthesis of centers of habitation across the continents.

The Evelyn planks are in this sensed informed by such a cartographers’ attention to setting out the contours of the venous system  in all its gory materiality, and a sensibility of reading the detail of the mapped world–as opposed to the landscape–that paralleled the huge interest in maps and local skills of territorial and terrestrial mapping during the same period in Italian university milieu, where maps were esteemed as particularly valuable syntheses of overseas continents and their inhabitants, as well as elegantly stylized constructions.  The disembodied structures of the veins, if truly ghostly, offered a accurate if somewhat distorted map of venous anatomy valuable for one with limited recourse to comparable comprehensive dissections, and an emblem of his learning.




The panel, one of a set of four, were no doubt prepared as pedagogic devices, shortly before the death of both Vesling and his surgeon in 1649.  The two varnished panels of pines recall Leonardo da Vinci’s explicit comparison between the world or macrocosm and the microcosm of the body, as well as the varnished surface of an early globe.  The veins the surgeon disembodied and affixed to pine boards for Evelyn indeed resemble roads or routes, and recall the rivers that flow over the surface of the earth that Leonardo compared to the rivers that course through the macrocosm of the earth.   Leonardo boasted of plans for a book of anatomy in which:  “I will . . . divide them into limbs as [Ptolemy] divided the whole world into provinces, [and] then I will speak of the function of each part in every direction, putting before your eyes a description of the whole form and substance of man . . . ,” using the map as a likely concrete metaphor for investing the detailed images of body parts he drew with the weight of knowledge claims of a map, seeking to give them a jointly informative and orienting function.   He seemed to scoff at the futility of doctors’ attempts to describe human anatomy in words, and expressed the potential of anatomical images by drawing a likeness between how the works of Ptolemy and Galen relied on graphic artifice to  transmitting personal observations incommensurate with written texts.  The material reproduction of images in print of human anatomy and maps both grew in the early sixteenth century in ways that were linked not only to the prestige or design of engravings, but a new attention to how engraved images embodied their subject–at the very time that the anatomist Andreas Vesalius–who had himself studied surveying–helped design six large engraved tables of the body’s skeleton, veins and arteries, and nervous system.

The “Evelyn tables” echoed the anatomical prints, also made for students in Padua for consultation by students who attended public dissections.  Before techniques of wax-injection, these images not only provided an invaluable pedagogic device to “view” the body’s interior; the metaphor of the map also provided a ready model of readability for an image of the body.  The surgeon William Cowper, to whom Evelyn boasted of having obtained the planks, later designed engraved images after their disposition of veins to teach his students, reflecting the huge interest Evelyn had for an image he believed totally foreign to England.  They how it recalls the skill with which the anatomist Andreas Vesalius had crafted detailed a large detailed image the body’s veins engraved by an artist, Stephan von Calcar, in Padua in 1537-8, in an often-reprinted image that foregrounds the centrality of the vena cava–and whose position was  relevant in debates on sites of bleeding to relieve pain in the side of the body, and as a guide to understand the benefits of bleeding at the inner elbow, forearm, or below the knee.  The vena cava leading to the liver assumes a centrality in this image, more reminiscent of a caricature than an objective illustration or a map, but which focusses attention on its course:




This was, then, a sort of map for orienting students to methods of phlebotomy by providing a material image of the venous blood’s path.  The principles of such a selective guide to internal anatomy would have made such a notion of genre-crossing less surprising to educated readers.  Both images are specifically map-like in their selective attention to detail, as well as their departure from a point of view of individual observation.  Vesalius had himself studied with Gemma Frisius in Basel, the pioneer of land-surveying practices of triangulating by base-lines, which later provided a powerful model to envision local territories that Venetian cartographers would come to employ to chart inland possessions, but which had been increasingly refined from the early sixteenth century by men like Vesalius’ teacher Gemma.  Indeed, if maps objectify but create our concept of territories, the practice of mapping bodily structures constituted the autonomy of the underlying structures of skeletal, venous, and nervous anatomy as networks, before their physiological function were understood or theorized.

Hence Alessandro Benedetti, who demonstrated human anatomy in Venice at the time of Leonardo, invoked nautical maps as accurate records of the shorelines of coasts and islands of the Adriatic not only mediated spatial knowledge in visual form but embodied it in engravings.  By the 1530s, not only did Benedetto Bordone, an illuminator and engraver in Venice, publish books of islands in Italian, but doctors in Padua such as Girolamo da Verrazzano, the explorer, fashioned elegant globes gilded in copper in Padua– long before the printing and marketing maps in Venice peaked in the 1560s–like the one housed in the Morgan Library.  Their maps embodied knowledge in new ways, and with new pressing urgency, for a wide audience.



The following gores made after the 1530 globe reveal the precision of delineating coastlines of  islands and continents to meet considerable expectations for detailed topical cartographical detail:


Verrazano Gores


The engraved globe is  remarkable for its detail–apparent even more in its gores–and for the claims of a mimetic visuality that it promised, replicating an expanse that could be readily surveyed in its coastlines and totality by readers, who could imagine a relation to the embodied contours as a whole.  Benedetto Bordone’s book that claimed to map “the islands of the entire world” of 1528 included some 111 maps of individual islands.  A shift in the visibility and embodiment of the world that occurred around 1535 in Italy and Europe, and particularly in Venice, shifting awareness in maps not only a register of information, but as embodying a tactile relation to the world through their synthesis of different registers of spatial information and first-hand observation.  Space is embodied in maps of Crete and Cyprus printed by Giovan Andrea Vavassore in 1538, and earlier views of Constantinople and the Levant, but also by the generation of contemporary cartographer-engravers who specialized in woodcut maps that were contemporaries, after the many nautical charts in that maritime city:  and in 1516, a Venetian engraver first boasted to reconcile the forms of Ptolemaic world maps with charts based on maritime observations, and in 1528 the engraver Benedetto Bordone printed in Venice his popular Isolario, which mapped not only the maritime situation of Venice itself,




but included numerous maps of cities and islands in the New World–among them a famous map of Cuzco, in Italian, which provided the first information of New World inhabitants for many book-buyers, including an image of human sacrifice at its central square:




The print business that led to such a market for maps of new curiosities in maps–so unlike the more humanistic maps that accompanied editions of the ancient geographer Claudius Ptolemy’s treatise on world-mapping, or Geography, encouraged the above medical images to be engraved as tools that embodied a similar relation to human anatomy, at the expense [“de sumptibus”] of the artist who is credited with their design, based on drawings of the anatomist.


isolario bordone


Vesalius was also not the only anatomist to image these parts of the body in ways that provided the notion of synthesizing first hand observations of interior anatomy that their viewers would consult, whose engravings form of visual learning and teaching human anatomy. The work of Bartholomeo Eustachio contested Vesalius’ account of venous anatomy and the relations between human and animal anatomy–so central to Vesalius’ critique of Galenic medicine, and of Galen’s own investigations in the six books of his Anatomical Procedures–by offering his own “map” of the pathway of the azygos vein, including both the thoracic duct and the and valvula venae in the heart’s right ventricle:  to reveal the material distribution of the relation of the azygos vein to the heart, he worked with his disciple Pier Matteo Pini and the engraver Giulio de’ Musi, both to better objectify the body’s hidden structure and to create a clearer model to debate its form.  The thirty-seven images they drafted employed a numbered grid to better situate the vein in measured coordinates for their readers:




The vast majority of plates that embodied human anatomy which Eustachi had engraved in his life were not printed, although the anatomist prized them enough to leave them to his pupil, Pier Matteo Pini, but can be viewed among the collections of the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s Historical Anatomies on its website.  It’s not known who viewed them, if anyone, in the period from Eustachi’s death in the 1570s to 1714, when they were printed after being discovered in the Roman hospital of Santo Spirito between the Vatican and Tiber:  but their attention to embodying physical structures and organs of the body for viewers was evident in the odd sequence of detailed observations of renal anatomy that were printed in Venice in 1566, disembodied from a human figure:




The so-called “Evelyn Tables” are the mid-seventeenth century continuation of this tradition,  and a similar materialization mapping the venous anatomy for educated readers.  There is a sense of the performative in this map who exposes his interior, his crudely drawn face turned upward, as if oddly to shrug off the pressing question of his own subjectivity, that may echo unspoken curiosity about the source of the veins in the “Table,” but one reads both as a map, and a mapping of the body’s interior space.  There is less distance–and that is the point, perhaps–in the plastinated bodies viewable 24-7 in Las Vegas, created from cadavers not made of locals, but bodies who have been flown , perhaps from Chinese prisons, half way round the world.


Filed under cadavers, Evelyn Tables, Gunther von Hagens, Human Anatomy, human dissection, medical maps, surveying, Tenochtitlan, Verrazzano Globe

2 responses to “Mapping the Materials of the Human Body

  1. The image from Bartholomeo Eustachi’s Tabulae Anatomicae is from the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s Historical Anatomies on the Web site:

    • Thanks, Michael! I had meant to key this into the post, but neglected to do so. It’s a wonderful resource among the few Eustachi images that are online. The story of the disappearance, preservation and loss of these multiple plates, destroyed or lost in Rome after being reprinted by Lancisi in the early eighteenth century, is one of the big mysteries for me about early modern Italian medical books. Lancisi’s discovery and re-printing of the plates is a wonderful story!

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