Digital Frontiers 2016, Electronic Vesalius Update

Updated, Oct. 29: Our talk (and all the talks from DF16) are up on YouTube. Someone even went to the trouble of editing between the different cameras!


After 7 months of intense intellectual laboring, we presented the results of our first, test phase for the Electronic Vesalius project at the lovely Digital Frontiers conference. Frankly, our team is ecstatic:

Our model is currently getting some finishing touches in my office, but he will soon be installed in a fairly prominent venue in Houston, for those of you interested in the intersections between art history, book history, and the history of medicine!

In the meantime, because our talk wasn’t recorded, we’re going to share some of our media and ideas on the project here. Our project team: Ying Jin, from Fondren Library, was the programmer; Matthew Wettergreen, from the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, was the engineering instructor; Benjamin Rasich was the engineer/designer (he built the “nervous system”); Isaac Philips worked with Ben in the early stages as we designed the rough outlines of the physical object; and John Mulligan was the humanist and project lead.

Project Goal

Our goal was to “reanimate” the Texas Medical Center Library‘s collection of rare anatomy texts, by turning a life-sized replica of a Vesalian “muscle man” into a touch-sensitive, high-fidelity (static) image (thanks to Que Imaging for their scanning, printing, and plexiglass cutting services). When people press on the model’s labeled parts, an accompanying touchscreen brings up several layers of relevant information on the visual history of that body part. Users can read what is displayed, or page through to deeper item information on the digital touchscreen. (See our March blog post to see how the project has evolved and for more background.)

Bringing old books to life: A touch sensitive life-sized representation of Vesalius’ anatomical drawing from 1543.

A video posted by Matthew Wettergreen (@organprinter) on

August 5: Vesalius dual-interface test from John Mulligan on Vimeo.

Remediated Histories of the Book, Medicine, and Aesthetics

Studying the history of atlases as media objects, and the uses and interpretations of anatomy atlases (a largely modern invention) in particular, enabled the team to iteratively imagine how we could most fully realize the potential value of the library’s anatomy collection, within the time and funding constraints of the faculty research grant awarded by the Rice HRC for this project and the constraints of our own skill sets (though all of us learned some new skills in the process!).

Part of this involved realizing not only how much our “new media” borrow from “old media” like atlases, but also how much the process of remediation can transform an object. In the process of coding wiring the sensitive body zones, for instance, we realized that we had re-organized Vesalius’ body into something different; and so we transformed our wiring diagram into a map of this electronic body. (Click through to try the wiring diagram.)


The more informative and recognizably anatomical test site (though it’s fragile, running on free heroku servers, and is incomplete and out of date) is available here:


Anatomy atlases in general, and Vesalius’s in particular, has a long history of what digital humanists call “remediation,” and so we were entering into and negotiating with a rich media tradition. A sketch of this tradition:

  • Vesalius’ own Epitome, an abridged version of his Fabrica, which was designed to be cut up into a paper doll, or manikin, that could allow students a virtual dissection tool. Cambridge has a copy of the Epitome‘s manikin pages with gorgeous high-resolution photos.
  • The eighteenth-century print remediations/updates of Vesalian style. Barbara Maria Stafford on this: “This occurred, first, with Gerard de Lairesse for Govert Bidloo. Second, William Cowper (1660-1709) ‘borrowed’ the originals, as did Jean Wandelaer for Bernard Albinus’s (1697-1770) Leiden edition of the De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1725). Together, these volumes constituted the most beautiful anatomical atlases of the eighteenth century” (Body Criticism, 58-59).
  • The 1936 Brussels print run made with the 16th-century original wood blocks. We used the TMC’s 1936 copy for our life-sized image, both because the image was crisper, and because it called to mind our own work as a facsimile reproduction team.
  • Daniel Garrison and Malcolm Hast’s absolutely indispensable print edition New Fabrica (2014), and their online precursor edition (2003), which both reinterpret the book as a hypertext. They organize their information according to a negotiation between Vesalian and present-day taxonomies, and then create a rich internal linking structure between parts in order to help their readers see the book much as a renaissance-era expert reader might have.
  • Our physical-digital installation rethinks Vesalius’ Fabrica as an atlas-of-atlases. It does the work of an atlas in coordinating readers’ ways of seeing and knowing, but it tests the limits of the atlas form by covering multiple atlases and centuries’ worth of secondary criticism. The Vesalian body for us opens onto the history of anatomy, and our remediation attempts to help a wide readership interface with that history.

In my engagement with this tradition, I teased out four distinct interpretive frameworks by which people have understood the anatomized human body. If the Vesalian body opens up a history to us, it is a history that readers/users can easily approach in at least the following ways: 1) Anatomy as a unity of structure and function, 2) Changing standards of truth and beauty, 3) Anatomy as a subtractive vs. compositional process, and 4) Affect and embodiment. We are working towards a couple publications on this project, so you will hopefully see a full account of this interpretive design strategy in print, soon.

In the meantime, we hope these photos from the Digital Frontiers conference give a sense of how the physical-digital interface brings the history of anatomy and its interpretive possibilities to life for users:

Project Next Steps:

A. We have applied for funding to expand this installation to cover all 16 of Vesalius’ models, in order to create a more comprehensive lookup of the visual history of the human body; I have also applied for funding to do further research in this area, and to expand our available collection of images and criticism. Fingers crossed!

B. We are still filling in content here and there. One of my practica students is currently translating latin passages accompanying certain anatomical diagrams, for progressive inclusion in the exhibit.

C. We currently have a test site running, but it has very low bandwidth and we haven’t been able to update the platform or content for a while, for fear of breaking it! We are searching for better hosting options.

D. Using our super-high-resolution scans and Adobe Illustrator, we are going to transform these monochromatic woodcut images into vector files, and use those to reproduce the original woodcuts with a CNC router or laser cutter.

E. The theoretical paper I’m currently writing up on our findings from this project uses Siegfried Zielinski and Yuk Hui to argue that anatomy atlases generally, and ours in particular, are not media objects. First, there’s an uncanny valley problem: the closer we get to an accurate, anatomical representation of the body, the harder it is to maintain any distance between us and the material conditions of the object’s productions. William Hogarth’s analysis on the beauty of the accurately-depicted human form is helpful here:

[A]s the skin is taken off the parts are too distinctly traced by the eye, for that intricate delicacy which is necessary to the utmost beauty; yet the winding figures of the muscles, with the variety of their situations, must always be allowed elegant forms: however, they lose in the imagination some of the beauty, which they really have, by the idea of their being flayed…. (56-7)

But second, to come at it from the other direction, the dissected bodies of anatomy manuals don’t really mediate an experience of the human body; these atlases give us assemblages of body parts that, the longer one spends with them, the harder it is to imagine them ever fitting back together as a complete organism.

That paper, along with a couple arguments about the critical reception of Vesalius in particular, is in the works! In the meantime, we’re putting together a more process-oriented paper that will outline how we constructed our model and some of our topline findings in terms of interdisciplinary research and design.

Please do feel free to contact me with any questions, and to explore our code if you’d like!

Copyright John Mulligan 2016