Pre-Vesalian Anatomy Theater
Pre-Vesalian Anatomy Theater featuring the Discoursing Professor, the operating Demonstrator, and the Ostensor.

Vesalian Anatomy Theater
Vesalian Anatomical Theater and Practice;
Vesalius's Hands are On/In the Cadaver's Viscera (frontispiece of De fabrica)


Method Heading

Before Vesalius revolutionized dissection practice, anatomists performed public dissections through a highly-ritualized and –hierachized practice. Three professionals participated in the dissection, each with specific roles during the performance. First, a professor of anatomy (who was a physician, the most-esteemed form of medical practitioner) would sit on a raised dais above the cadaver; from this position, he would read from an anatomical text (likely Galen’s), describing the organs and their presumed functions. Below him, a demonstrator (who was a surgeon, a medical practitioner held in lower esteem because he physically interacted with the patient or, in this case, cadaver) performed the action dissection. Standing next to the demonstrator, the ostenor would use a wand to point to the specific organ being described by the professor and revealed by the demonstrator. 1

Public dissection, according to scholars such as Luke Wilson and Jonathan Sawday, is a discursive practice, on that disassembled cadavers as it simultaneously constructed a normative ideology about the body in the minds of audience members (Wilson and Sawday). Through Vesalius’s transformative practice, public dissection became a technique of developing an autopic gaze; Sawday suggests that public dissection encouraged audience members to transport the reductionist methodology of dissection and classification to all other aspects of their life, most detrimentally the social.2

When performing a public dissection, Vesalius collapsed the three roles of the traditional dissection into one: he lectured on anatomy without the aid of a text, extemporizing freely, he dissected the body himself, and he indicated the organs to the audience. (During Vesalius’s day, the audience grew to contain not only medical students but also members of the social elite.) As Vesalius changed the practice, he also changed the discursive formation. Wilson writes that, “The anatomist‘s relation to the body…[became] no longer ostensive but rather presentative or performative.”3 By collapsing the distance between his own body and the cadaver’s, Vesalius implies that “All bodies, then, living and dead, clothed and naked, man and animal, are potential subjects of dissection, and all share with the cadaver the anatomizing gaze of the onlookers; the spectators themselves form spectacles both for one another and for the outside observer.”4 Audience members at a public dissection learned there was much to the human body—thus much of themselves—that they could never access, resulting in an anxiety of physical interiority.  

Vesalius would often conclude the performance by dissecting mammals other than humans. While this practice might be considered a precursor to comparative anatomy, Vesalius performed these additional dissections for practical reasons: the human cadaver—a scarce and perpetually degenerating model—would often be rendered non-demonstrable by the ravages of the dissection and its own spoiled state. Thus, Vesalius used other mammals as substitutes. In this way, Wilson suggests, society came to know its own interiority through “analogical anatomy,” a process that obscured as much as it rendered clear, meaning that a person’s self-knowledge was an approximation based not only upon presumed similarity to a human cadaver, but also upon ostensibly similar organs in completely different species.5

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The Philosophes

The Anatomists


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