Rare Book of the Month: April 2017

Anatomiae, sive de resolution corporis humani ad Caesarem Mediovillanum libri IIII

The April 2017 rare book of the month is the Anatomiae, sive de resolution corporis humani ad Caesarem Mediovillanum libri IIII, printed in Frankfurt in 1591. The book is by Costanzo Varoli (or Varolio/Varolius) and has been described by the Dictionary of Scientific Biography as a “teleologic physiology of man”. Some accounts claim that this work does not contain illustrations, but as can be seen here, that is untrue. It contains one illustration depicting the workings of the lens of the eye, and its perception from different angles. Varoli states in the illustration that vision from the left and right sides of the lens are ‘confused’ and out of focus. The ‘greatest perfection’ of vision is obtained from the middle of the lens, looking straight on.

The book was published posthumously and is actually two works in one, the Anatomiae and the De nervis opticis. The latter was originally printed in 1573, and is included in this work with some slight variations to the woodcuts. Although the pagination is continuous throughout the work, there is a separate title page for the De nervis opticis.

Varoli (1543-1575) was taught anatomy at the University of Bologna by Giulio Cesare Aranzio, who in turn had been taught by the great anatomist, Vesalius. He earned his medical degree in 1566 from the University of Padua and was given the “newly instituted extraordinary Chair of Surgery” at the University of Bologna in 1569 where he also taught anatomy. He later went on to lecture on anatomy at the Sapienza University of Rome, starting in 1572. He was a successful physician and surgeon in Rome during this time as well, but died prematurely from an unknown disease at the age of 32.

Varoli is best known for having made an important change to the way that the brain is dissected. Rather than leaving the brain in situ (i.e. in the skull), he removed it entirely and dissected it in slices from the base upwards. Leaving the brain in the skull for dissection meant having to dissect it from above. Although Vesalius does depict the base approach in plate 48 in his De humani corporis fabrica of 1543, he is nonetheless best known for dissecting the brain from above, still in the skull.

Varoli’s technique enabled him to view the brain in a completely new manner and lead to his discovery of the pons (bridge) in the brain stem, which was later renamed the pons Varolii; he recognised that the pons is a “connection between the cerebellum and the cerebrum”. Dissecting the brain from the base enabled anatomists to have better access to deep structures in the brain, as well as allowing them to dissect along different planes. Varoli was also the first to first to identify the ileocecal valve and the first to distinguish the lobes of the brain.

These discoveries are outlined in the De nervis opticis, which takes the form of a letter to Gerolamo Mercuriale (1530–1606), Mercuriale’s reply and Varoli’s response. As mentioned above, this was originally printed in Padua in 1573. The work is mainly concerned with the optic nerve which was his main interest, along with the other cranial nerves. The full text version of this 1573 book can be viewed here.

For further reading on Varoli, see Zago, S. & Meraviglia, M.V. J Neurol (2009) 256: 1195. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00415-009-5192-5.

The book is in need of restoration. The front half and the spine of the binding is missing and some of the paper is in need of repair; the book also needs to be cleaned. If you would like to sponsor this book, please contact the library: library@middletemple.org.uk. The estimated cost of repair is £300.00.


Renae Satterley


April 2017