Academic journal article Journal of the Medical Library Association

Influence of the Casserius Tables on Fetal Anatomy Illustration and How We Envision the Unborn* *

Academic journal article Journal of the Medical Library Association

Influence of the Casserius Tables on Fetal Anatomy Illustration and How We Envision the Unborn* *

Article excerpt

Objective: The paper demonstrates how visual representation of the fetus in early anatomy texts influenced the reader's perception of the unborn child as an autonomous being.

Data Sources: The health, art, and history literatures were used as sources. Original texts and illustrations, with particular attention paid to the Casserius Tables, published by Andreas Spigelius in 1627, are discussed.

Study Selection: A review of the literature was conducted to identify and analyze published renderings, reproductions, and discussion of images of the unborn child. Original anatomy atlases were consulted.

Main Results: Artists' renderings of a particularly vulnerable state of human life influenced early perceptions of the status of the unborn child. The images show fetuses as highly independent, providing a visual cue that life is fully formed in utero.

Conclusion: The legacy of the Casserius Tables is that they are still able to capture our attention because they portray the idea of a fetus and newborn even more clearly than our modern representations of this charged topic. The use of deceptive realism provides the viewer with an accessible visual representation of the unborn child. These early anatomy illustrations continue to influence modern-day perception of the unborn child as a separate being, completely autonomous from the mother.

The image of a human fetus arouses a wide range of conflicting emotions. Whether the fetus is in the early or late stages of development, this image provides the viewer with a glimpse of human life that we are not usually able or permitted to see. Whether conscious of it or not, the observer of an image of a fetus may well be suspicious that some sort of invasive procedure must have taken place to make this image available. Access to this subject in any century and in most cultures is typically forbidden, prohibited, or just plain unobtainable. It is perhaps for all of these reasons that there are very few of these images in the history of art or medicine. The images that do exist in the history of Western civilization have been primarily created for medical textbooks.

Five hundred years have passed since the creation of the Casserius Tables, originally published in Andreas Spigelius's De Formato Foetu. Spigelius succeeded Giulio Casserio (Casserius) to the chair of anatomy at the University of Padua, and his publication contains the most complete collection of original impressions of Casserius's tables. The most unique of these oversize engravings depict the pregnant uterus, placenta, and fetus (Figures 1, 2; Figures 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7, online only).

Although countless discoveries in the anatomy of the unborn have been made since the seventeenth century, Casserius's illustrations continue to be reproduced and presented as de facto representations of this mysterious subject. While the modern-day viewer is aware that these are not realistic images of the fetus and newborn, there is, nevertheless, a widespread acceptance that these illustrations do visually represent our current concept of a still largely unviewable subject: the fetus and newborn child. Casserius's Table 4 (Figure 1) in particular has been used to illustrate obstetric and gynecologic texts and has been featured in anatomy catalogs [1] and an online exhibit at the National Library of Medicine [2].

Even as anatomical advances were made over the ensuing centuries and the representation of the fetus became more realistic, the Casserius Tables continued to be considered standard representations of the subject, not only by the medical profession, but also by the lay public. The ability of the Casserius Tables to capture the attention of the modern reader shows the widespread impact this genre of anatomical representation has had on modern society's perception of the unborn child. The implications for this phenomenon are the topic of this paper.

It is important to acknowledge that the task of representing a fetus poses distinct problems in any era. …

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