1543 – Johannes Oporinus publishes Vesalius

Johann Herbst (1507-1578), using the Latinized name of Johannes Oporinus, was one of the outstanding printers of sixteenth century Basel. His fame rests on the first edition of Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica libri septem which was published in 1543 – a book on anatomy that would change the world of medicine for ever.Oporinus would have been an extraordinary figure even if Vesalius’s magnus opus had been printed elsewhere. He was the son of the painter Hans Herbst. Having completed his academic studies at Strasbourg and Basel, he worked as a teacher. He then acted as assistant to the erratic Doctor Paracelsus and, subsequently, taught Greek at Basel University before starting out on a career as printer and publisher.

De humani corporis is one of the most notable books of the sixteenth century. Both presswork and woodcuts are outstanding. The lay-out clearly indicates the significant progress the art of printing had made since the fifteenth century. The initials were produced specifically for this book. The reader is presented with putti that kill pigs, steal a female body from the gallows, operate on patients, or cook a skull. Their antics can be interpreted as a pun on the Galenic practice of medicine.

The mise-en-page of the book is superb. Oporinus used a roman letter that was typical for printers from Basel and a beautiful italic. The use of these typefaces in different sizes and the handling of titles give the text a rhythm of its own, one that naturally fits in with the woodcuts. This is undoubtedly one of the finest books ever produced.

One can but wonder what might have become of this work by Vesalius, and of the ground-breaking ideas it contained, if it had been handled by a printer of inferior skill and ability.