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COLOMBO, Realdo (1516-1559)

Realdi Columbi Cremonensis ... De re anatomica libri XV.
Venetiis, ex typographia Nicolai Bevilacquæ, 1559.

First edition, first issue, of Colombo’s only work, containing his discovery of pulmonary circulation. – “This historical breakthrough in his demonstration of the lesser circulation through the lungs secures his place of importance in the line culminating in Harvey’s demonstration of the circulation of the blood sixty-nine years later.” (Heirs of Hippocrates). When Vesalius, the professor of anatomy at Padua, went to Basle in 1542 to oversee the printing of his Fabrica, he did not return in time to the annual anatomical demonstrations early in 1543, why Realdo Colombo was appointed as his temporary replacement. In 1544 the chair was given to Colombo on a regular basis. At the invitation of Cosimo I de Medici, Colombo left Padua in 1545 to teach anatomy at Pisa. In 1548 he went to Rome, where he engaged in anatomical studies with Michelangelo. Their intention was to publish an illustrated anatomy that would rival Vesalius’ Fabrica, but the artist’s advanced age prevented them from fulfilling this plan. Colombo remained in Rome the rest of his life, where he gained favour at the papal court and performed autopsies on a number of leading ecclesiastics, including Ignatius of Loyola. Colombo was the first anatomist to criticize Vesalius, not for his rejection of Galen’s authority but for his own errors. In his public lectures at Padua, Pisa, and Rome, Colombo presented numerous additional corrections and discoveries and the aim of his work with Michelangelo was to produce a new and more correct anatomy text that would supersede Vesalius’ Fabrica. Already in 1556 Colombo’s former student, Valverde, published an anatomy of the human body in Spanish, which was based on the Fabrica but also incorporated many of Colombo’s corrections and new discoveries. In 1559 Colombo published his own unillustrated text, De re anatomica, consisting of fifteen books. Colombo evidently died during the printing of this work, as did his dedicatee Pope Paul IV. In the second issue, Colombo’s two sons replaced his dedicatory letter with one of their own mentioning their father’s recent demise. Colombo is best known for his discovery of the pulmonary or lesser circulation, that is, the passage of blood from the right cardiac ventricle to the left via the lungs. Although this discovery was first published in Valverde’s Historia (1556), the evidence in both Valverde’s account and in Colombo’s own De re anatomica indicates that the discovery was Colombo’s, made through his vivisectional observations of the heart and pulmonary vessels. Colombo also made considerable progress in understanding the heartbeat, generally misinterpreted by his predecessors, who thought the heart functions like a bellows whose main action is a strenous dilation, by which it draws materials into its two ventricles. It appears that Colombo’s observations of the heartbeat formed the actual starting point for Harvey’s vivisectional studies on the heart, which eventually led to the discovery of the circulation. Colombo’s book has no illustrations except for the anonymous title page woodcut depicting an anatomy lesson being conducted by Colombo himself. It is directly inspired by that of Vesalius’ Fabrica. The dangling right arm of the cadaver is said to recall Donatello’s bas-relief The heart of the miser. It has been variously attributed to Titian, Giuseppo Porta, and Salviati. We can only speculate as to what sort of artistic masterpiece Michelangelo might have produced, but he left no drawings or any other evidence that he ever seriously considered the task of illustrating Colombo’s De re anatomica.

Collation: Pp (8), 269 (misprinted 169), (3). Title with full-page woodcut of an anatomy lesson.

Binding: Old vellum, sewn on four supports, beige and white endbands. Traces from four paired alum-tawed ties, at head, tail, and two at foredge, handwritten title on front cover: Realdi Columbi Anatomicum. Rebacked.

Provenance: Di Pierfilippo Malesioo Piacetino.

References: Garrison & Morton, 378.1; Mortimer, Italian, 128; Norman 510; Osler 897; Heirs of Hippocrates 188; Schultz, Bernard, Art and Anatomy in Renaisance Italy, (1985), pp 102-04; DSB, III, pp 354-57; Coppola, E.D. ’The Discovery of the Pulmonary Circulation; A New Approach.’ in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 21 (1957), pp 44-77; Wilson, L.G. ’The Problem of the Discoery of the Pulmonary Circulation.’ in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 17 (1962), pp 229-44. Waller 2076.

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