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University of Iowa News Release

May 1, 2003

Photo: An image from noted Italian artist and architect Pietro de Cortona's book "Tabulae Anatomicae." Click here for a high-resolution version of the image. To view more illustrations, visit

Hardin Library Posts Anatomy Illustrations On Web Site

The UI's Hardin Library for the Health Sciences has recently placed on its Web site the only known set of medical illustrations by noted Italian artist and architect Pietro de Cortona.

Cortona, who would later find fame as a leading Italian Baroque artist, was unknown around 1618 when he drew the illustrations, which were lost soon after completion and not rediscovered until after his death in 1669. Owing to Cortona's fame, his illustrations were collected in the book "Tabulae Anatomicae" and published in 1741, more than 120 years after they were drawn.

A copy of "Tabulae Anatomicae," has been in the collection of the Hardin's John Martin Rare Book Room since 1974. The illustrations can be found on the Web at

According to Edwin Holtum, assistant director for administrative services and special collections, the origin of the illustrations is shrouded in mystery. No one knows who commissioned the works or why-although scholars believe it was for a project about neurology because of the illustrations' emphasis on the nervous system-or how they disappeared for so long. Holtum said that while the illustrations have little medical significance, they are an excellent example of the anatomical work that artists produced in the 17th century.

"Cortona broke no new ground medically because all of this information was known earlier," he said. "But they provide an excellent example of the kind of anatomies typically produced during the Baroque period. Artists of that time wanted to be more creative in their illustrations than showing the body simply in the anatomical pose."

In the illustrations, the corpses are drawn in elaborate poses while pulling off their own skin or lifting up their rib cages to reveal the organs beneath, or holding their own internal organs in their hands. Anatomical details are shown in brooches or mirrors that the corpses hold themselves. Each illustration also shows a village landscape in the background, as if the models are posing in the public square of a small Italian town.

Holtum said the illustrations are also interesting as an example of Cortona's early work, before he became a significant artist whose work is studied still. Among his later major achievements are the decoration of the Gran Salone of the Palazzo Barberini and the reconstruction of the Church of SS Luce e Martina. Cortona's paintings, and in particular his frescoes, influenced European art for many years after his death. It was Cortona who first created large integrated compositions in ceiling frescoes. Until then, most such works were divided into smaller compositions, each representing a particular scene or event.

Even today, artists today use the Tabulae Anatomicae illustrations to do figure studies. As far as anybody knows, Holtum said Cortona never drew another anatomy atlas.

The 27 illustrations on the Web site are scanned from 35-mm slides of such high resolution that users can see the vividness of the illustrations even from a conventional computer monitor, Holtum said.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

CONTACT(S): Tom Snee, 319-384-0010,