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Picturing the Book of Nature

Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany

Because of their spectacular, naturalistic pictures of plants and the human body, Leonhart Fuchs’s De historia stirpium and Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica are landmark publications in the history of the printed book. But as Picturing the Book of Nature makes clear, they do more than bear witness to the development of book publishing during the Renaissance and to the prominence attained by the fields of medical botany and anatomy in European medicine. Sachiko Kusukawa examines these texts, as well as Conrad Gessner’s unpublished Historia plantarum, and demonstrates how their illustrations were integral to the emergence of a new type of argument during this period—a visual argument for the scientific study of nature.

To set the stage, Kusukawa begins with a survey of the technical, financial, artistic, and political conditions that governed the production of printed books during the Renaissance. It was during the first half of the sixteenth century that learned authors began using images in their research and writing, but because the technology was so new, there was a great deal of variety of thought—and often disagreement—about exactly what images could do: how they should be used, what degree of authority should be attributed to them, which graphic elements were bearers of that authority, and what sorts of truths images could and did encode. Kusukawa investigates the works of Fuchs, Gessner, and Vesalius in light of these debates, scrutinizing the scientists’ treatment of illustrations and tracing their motivation for including them in their works. What results is a fascinating and original study of the visual dimension of scientific knowledge in the sixteenth century.

304 pages | 121 color plates, 16 halftones, 2 tables | 7 x 10 | © 2012

Art: European Art

Biological Sciences: Anatomy


“Science historian Sachiko Kusukawa probes the role of illustration in sixteenth-century medical treatises, before the advent of the microscope. Looking at Leonhart Fuch’s De historia stirpium, Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica and the unpublished Historia plantarum of Conrad Gessner, Kusukawa argues that such anatomical and botanic images were not simply records of natural phenomena, but varied visual experiments. [Her] book is studded with illustrative gems, not least John Dee’s ‘pop-up’ pyramids in Of Euclid’s Elements.”


“[M]agisterial. . . . As befits a volume dedicated to scientific illustration, Kusukawa’s own work is superbly presented, the clarity and nuance of the images complementing the lucidity and originality of her arguments.”

Eileen Reeves | Times Literary Supplement

Picturing the Book of Nature transitions gracefully from addressing general print concerns about illustrated texts to examining these themes in pictures of medicinal plants and ultimately to images of human anatomy. By moving toward greater specificity, Kusukawa connects specific debates and general trends, thus underscoring the symbiotic relationship between botany and medicine that characterized natural history during the period. . . . Kusukawa’s command of primary sources is impressive, and she addresses historiographic lacunae with gusto. . . . [A] captivating read.”

Justin Grosslight | Arts Fuse

“[H]andsomely illustrated. . . . This work would be an excellent addition to any history of science collection. Highly recommended.”

R. M. Davis, Albion College | Choice

“Kusukawa offers her readers an intellectual feast that is both satisfying and likely to stimulate more hunger for the questions at hand.”

Jean A. Givens, University of Connecticut | Reniassance Quarterly

“Readers today tend to expect images to accompany written text of scientific literature, but the distinguished scholar Sachiko Kusukawa tells how the study of medicine, which included medical botany and human anatomy, was enhanced by the introduction of illustrations with the printed content during the Renaissance. . . . Her insights into Renaissance scholarship are enlightening. Certainly, there are parallels to modern introductions of digital communication tools in all their various forms, and their use by scholars.”

Marilyn K. Alaimo | Current Books on Gardening and Botany

“All of the authors discussed here gave much thought to how their particular use of illustrations in combination with the text would influence the reader’s reading practice. We can say the same of Sachiko Kusukawa and her publisher, since this is one of the most beautifully produced and richly illustrated volumes in this field to have appeared for a long time. This thoughtful and thought-provoking study deserves to become a point of reference for research on relations between text and image, the role of illustrations and that of visual evidence in the history of science. Hopefully it will lead to new debate on the plurality and inventiveness of sixteenth-century textual and visual science.”

Florike Egmond, University of Leiden | British Journal for the History of Science

“Beautifully illustrated, this remarkable study constitutes a major step forward in understanding the world of medicine and natural history in the sixteenth century.”

Vivian Nutton, University College London | Medical History

“This is a magnificent achievement and a hugely important revision to our understanding of the philosophical place of images—drawn as well as printed—in the history of science. For this it will undoubtedly quickly become a standard work. It also points the way forward for the development of more refined bibliographical tools for the study of printed pictures, and the integration of the results of such study into intellectual history.”

Roger Gaskell | Library

Picturing the Book of Nature is both a lucidly written study of an intellectually significant topic and also a lavishly illustrated and beautiful material object. It discusses the uses of illustration in printed books of medico-scientific botany and anatomy in the sixteenth century, early years of both print culture and the scientific revolution, thus reconstructing a scholarly argument by ‘reading pictures.’ A sense of the nuanced complexity of the relationship between pictures and words in the early modern period illuminates Kusukawa’s history while casting a raking light on our own time. Students of print culture, whether historians of science or not, should take notice.”

Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing

“Like many of its sources, Picturing the Book of Nature is stunningly and extensively illustrated; it embodies and carefully propounds an assiduous attention to the potentialities and limitations of books as material objects that individuals use in specific ways. . . . Kusukawa’s study  . . . is vital reading for anyone seeking to understand the exigencies of medical publishing in the Renaissance.”

Killian Quigley | MAKE

“Elegantly designed and well-illustrated, . . . [Picturing the Book of Nature] is a clear and concise account of the process of book making and publishing that students of the history of art and science will appreciate.”

Susan Dackerman | Print Quarterly

Picturing the Book of Nature enriches the field of science and visual culture through its detailed focus on the composition, production, and reception of printed books containing both text and images. . . . Kusukawa has masterfully undermined our identification of these texts as canonical examples of period use of illustration by demonstrating that what is generally taken to be key and emblematic in them (namely a new attention to and the role of the visual) was in reality highly contested.”

Renée J. Raphael, University of California, Irvine | Journal of Historical Geography

“Throughout the book, Kusukawa consistently and carefully presents all sides of the argument for and against including images in the study of the book of nature. Instead of simply presenting the view of Fuchs, Gessner, and Vesalius, she provides excellent commentary on those who disagreed both with the content and the format of their works. Rich with historical detail, her accounts of the public and private disagreements present a vivid portrait of the spectrum of opinions about the use of illustrations in the sixteenth century, which lends fascinating insight into how the testimony of both the ancients and the moderns was used in favor of and against including illustrations in books for physicians. With its careful attention to visual argument, this book productively complicates our understanding of why and how authors included images in their texts.”

Meghan C. Doherty | Archives of Natural History

“Today we take for granted the usefulness of images in making a scientific argument, but in the sixteenth century many scholars had good reasons for criticizing the use of images in books. In this deeply intelligent and eloquently written (and illustrated) book, Sachiko Kusukawa tells us exactly how sixteenth-century authors struggled—with publishers, artists, classical authorities, and their fellow humanists—to make images a part of their books and a central component of their scientific arguments. Kusukawa overturns many assumptions about the relationship of images and books, making clear that images always worked in tandem with the texts because for these scholars, nature was understood through books. In doing so, she provides essential new insight into humanist scholarship and the interplay among texts, images, the things of nature, eyewitness observation, and the testimony of authorities in the sixteenth century. Picturing the Book of Nature presents an illuminating new view of how sixteenth-century scholars went about constructing a pictorial form of argument in their novel pursuit of making the structure of nature visible.”

Pamela H. Smith, Columbia University

“How do images make an argument? Picturing the Book of Nature rewrites the history of Renaissance science and medicine to demonstrate how illustrations became an instrument of knowledge in the mid-sixteenth century. Kusukawa’s careful attention to the making and use of images not only describes something fundamental about science in the age of Gutenberg and Vesalius but also illuminates a culture of lively and contentious debate about the relationship between word and image on the eve of the Scientific Revolution.”

Paula Findlen, Stanford University

“Sachiko Kusukawa has elegantly and persuasively displayed the complexity of the choices that faced early modern learned authors regarding the use of illustrations in printed scientific books. She shows that the decision to use or to omit illustrations depended not only on financial and technical considerations, important though these were, but also on a range of intellectual positions concerning the relative authority of text, image, and personal experience; as well as on a diversity of opinion about the relation of image to natural object and to verbal description by ancient and recent writers, and about ways of employing images in an author’s own text. Her learned and absorbing study throws new light on the assumptions and practices that shaped the production of Renaissance books on human anatomy and on medical botany.”

Nancy Siraisi, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York

“In this magnificent study of botanical and anatomical images in early printed books, Kusukawa asks not only how the first great illustrated scientific books were produced but why. She shows that, rather than simply recording observations, pictures were controversial tools for teaching, learning, researching, demonstrating, and persuading, and that they were shaped and informed by these complex goals. Erudite, lucidly argued, and original, Picturing the Book of Nature is itself a wonderful example of the power of images in and as arguments.”

Katharine Park, Harvard University

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Part 1. Printing pictures
Chapter 1. Techniques and Craftsmen        
Chapter 2. Publishers’ Calculations
Chapter 3. Copying and Coloring
Chapter 4. Control
Part 2. Picturing Medicinal Plants
Chapter 5. Accidents and Arguments: Fuchs’s De Historia Stirpium
Chapter 6. Arguments over Pictures: Reactions to Fuchs’s De Historia Stirpium
Chapter 7. Gessner and the Making of the Historia Plantarum
Chapter 8. The Authority of Pictures: Gessner, Mattioli, and Jamnitzer
Part 3. Picturing Human Anatomy
Chapter 9. Vesalius and the Bloodletting Controversy
Chapter 10. The Canon of the Human Body: Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica
Chapter 11. Text, Image, Body, and the Book


Association of American Publishers: PROSE Book Award
Honorable Mention

History of Science Society: Pfizer Award

SHARP: SHARP-DeLong Book History Prize
Honorable Mention

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