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Helen of Troy and Murderous Putti: Historiated Initials in Medical Books

Some of the most striking features in medieval illuminated manuscripts are their historiated initials.  These are capital letters that begin a section of text, and are decorated with figures – often Biblical, but not always – that enact a specific scene.  This differentiates them from decorated initials, which often feature plants, animals, and figures, but do not show any sort of narrative. For example, this historiated initial from the Queen Mary Psalter held at the British Library (Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 150v) depicts the opening line from Psalm 53, in which the fool says there is no God, and David replies that God looked down from Heaven.  It illustrates a story; therefore, it is an historiated initial.

The ascendancy of the printing press from the mid-15th century onward did not mean that the distinguishing features of manuscripts were abandoned, and the convention of using elaborate capital letters to set off chapters or sections of text was carried forward from manuscript culture into the era of the printing press.  In some cases the printer would deliberately leave a large amount of space around the first letter of a section so that the illuminator could add hand-drawn illustrations, as in the case these letters found in the copy of the Gutenberg Bible held at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. 

Eventually, historiated initials were incorporated directly into the printing process.  Several of the rare books held at the Becker Library have spectacular examples of historiated initials, some of which relate directly to the texts in which they appear, and others which were in all likelihood recycled from other works.

Andreas Vesalius

Andreas Vesalius’ 1543 publication De humani corporis fabrica is rightly regarded as one of the most spectacular books in both the history of medicine and the history of printing.  The woodcut illustrations depicting the human skeletal and muscular systems are perhaps the most famous; however, the historiated initials are tiny woodcut masterpieces in and of themselves.  The initials in the Fabrica are all related to the themes of anatomy and dissection, and feature putti carrying out tasks such as vivisection, boiling bones, and robbing graves.  The gallows humor of these illustrations falls in line with text.  Vesalius himself had no qualms in describing where his bodies for dissection came from, in one instance stating that, “At Padua the students snatched from the tomb and brought to a public dissection the body of a lovely dame of ill repute, the mistress of a monk of St. Anthony….they took great care to remove all the skin from the cadaver so that she could not be identified by the monk.”


Realdo Colombo

Realdo Colombo was a contemporary of Vesalius, and temporarily occupied Vesalius’ position as Chair of Anatomy at the University of Padua while Vesalius was in Basel overseeing the printing of De fabrica.  During Vesalius’ absence Colombo pointed out some of Vesalius’ anatomical errors during public demonstrations, which resulted in a bitter rivalry.

Colombo’s only published work is De re anatomica.  He had originally intended for it to be illustrated by Michelangelo, but that never came to pass.  The only illustrations are the frontispiece, which features a dissection scene, and the historiated initials.

While the initials in Vesalius are medical in nature, the initials in Colombo’s work show scenes out of classical mythology.  The one on the left, letter “H,” shows a woman being carried off to a waiting ship, possibly a reference to the abduction of Helen from Sparta.  The capital “L” on the right shows myth of Leda and the swan.  In the story Leda, Queen of Sparta, was seduced by Zeus while he was in the form of a swan, and Helen of Troy was the child of their lovemaking.


The fact that these illustrations have no relation to the text itself means that Colombo probably did not specially commission them.  The printer probably had them readily available from other jobs, and simply went ahead and used them with Colombo's text.

William Cowper

William Cowper’s Anatomy of Humane Bodies is somewhat notorious for plagiarizing the copperplate engravings Gérard de Lairesse created for Govarid Bidloo’s Anatomia humani corporis.  His Myotomia reformata, first published in an octavo edition in 1694 and posthumously as a folio in 1724, is less controversial.  It features lovely copperplate engravings of the muscular system and historiated initials that, while not as elaborate as those of Vesalius, are still beautiful.


These photos of the Myotomia initials are from the copy held by the New York Academy of Medicine, but we have a copy in the James Moores Ball Collection. 

Historiated initials show how many early printed books were made not only to be receptacles for the text, but to be works of art on their own.  Incredible amounts of care went into even the smallest details, resulting in beautiful books that we can still appreciate hundreds of years later.

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