Andreas Vesalius' (1514–64) first publication was a Paraphrasis of the ninth book of the Liber ad Almansorem, written by the Muslim physician and scholar Al-Razi (Rhazes, 854–925). The role of Rhazes in Vesalius' oeuvre has thus far been much disregarded. The different ways Rhazes recurs reveal an intellectual evolution in Vesalius' work. In the Paraphrasis, Vesalius subjects Rhazes to the authority of Galen in the context of the early 16th-century humanist campaign for the substitution of Arab influences by Greek ‘originals'. Over the years Vesalius continues his work on Rhazes, but his approach becomes more internationalistic. Ultimately, Vesalius criticises Galen while expressing sympathy for the Arab author. This may be the more significant as Rhazes could have influenced Vesalius in the act of criticising Galen – critical discussions of Galen were available to Vesalius in Latin translations of Rhazes's Liber Continens. Although Vesalius never refers to the work, it is hardly possible he was unaware of it: similarities in structure, rhetoric and form between the Continens and the De humani corporis fabrica could support this hypothesis.
The dusty crowd of Arabs declares that learning aids us,
While in olden times things barbaric were in favour.
Among these Arabs, Rhazes, the medical writer, is pre-eminent,
An excellent man because of his service to mankind.
But having been badly translated, his work till now displeased
Our countrymen, while henceforth it will be more esteemed.
This fact, Vesalius, we can attribute to you.
Praise deservedly is yours. Do thou lead. I follow*
* ‘Nostros docta iuvant, placuerunt barbara quondam / Hoc Arabum dictat pulverulenta cohors. / Inter quos topici Rhazes medicaminis autor / Emicat, excellens utilitate sua. / Sed male quod versus, patria cum gente legatur, / Displicet, at posthac gratior extiterit. / Quod tibi Wesali merito tribuisse queamus,/ Laus te certa manet, tu modo perge, sequor.’ Epigram by Jodocus Velsius, Vesalius’ friend at the universities of Paris and Louvain, included after the prologue of Vesalius’ Paraphrasis of Book IX of Rhazes’ Almansor. Andreas Vesalius, Paraphrasis in nonum librum Rhazae medici arabis clariss. ad regem Almansorem, de singularum corporis partium affectuum curatione (Lovanii: ex Officina Rutgeri Rescii, 1537) [herafter Vesalius, Paraphrasis], fol. 5v; in Harvey Cushing (author and trans.), A Bio-bibliography of Andreas Vesalius (Hamden: Archon Books, 1962), xxvii.
Andreas Vesalius, Paraphrasis in nonum librum Rhazae medici arabis clariss. ad regem Almansorem (Basel: Robert Winter, 1537), title page. Courtesy: Leiden University Library, obj. nr. 607F21. and Andreas Vesalius, Paraphrasis… (Louvain: In officina Rutgeri Rescii, 1537), fol. 18r. Showing ‘Galen’ spelled in capital letters, the capitals disappeared in the subsequent Basel edition. Courtesy: Google Books. Read online here.
Andreas Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri VII (Basel: Joa. Oporinus, 1543). Passage on p. 207 about the teeth with words in Hebrew and Greek type, and references to Arab authors Avicenna and Haly Abbas. Courtesy: Leiden University Library, obj. nr. 1402c.
Rhazes, Continens Rasis: quisquis es qui antiquiores…, 2 vols. (Venice: Ottiovano Scoto, 1529) ; vol. I, title page. Courtesy: Leiden University Library, obj. nr. 631 A 11-1.