Anatomical lessons from the fifteenth century

At first sight the incunable O fol 13 rariora from the Utrecht University Library makes little impression. This convolute has a large size and contains three different texts without illustrations. All three texts are of medical content, but only the last two are connected. These two texts form the combined work Expositiones super tractatum De urinis et XXII fen tertii Canonis Avicenna, written by Giovanni Matteo Ferrari de Grado. In these two texts Ferrari comments on works of Avicenna (980-1037), a renowned Persian physician. The first text is a commentary on the tract De urinis, the second text goes deeper into Fen (section) 22 of the third book of The Canon of Medicine.

A mistake in the binding?

Although the book isn’t visually attractive, it contains the first print of the Expositiones from 1494. It is notable that both texts are reversed in the binding. In O fol 13 the commentary on De urinis is bound as the last text, although this text is actually supposed to appear before the commentary on Fen 22 of the third book of the Canon.

A famous professor

Giovanni Matteo Ferrari de Grado, or Latinized Johannes Matheus de Ferrariis de Gradibus, was born in Milan at the end of the fourteenth century. Following in the footsteps of his father, who was a member of the College of physicians in Milan, Ferrari grew up to be one of the most renowned professors of medicine at the University of Pavia. From 1452 he held the position of chair of medicine in Pavia, which he kept until his death in 1472. For a professor in that time this was an unusual long period.

His good reputation already spread during his life. Ferrari could call himself the personal physician of dukes from Milan and he was consulted by the Marquis of Mantua, various nobles from all over Europe and in 1466 even by the French king Louis XI.

Commentary on Avicenna

Ferrari wrote three influential texts, which are also part of the first group of printed texts about medicine, the Practica, the Consilia and the Expositiones. As mentioned before, the Expositiones contain, among other texts, Ferrari’s commentary on Fen 22 from the third book of the Canon of Medicine by Avicenna. Avicenna’s famous Canon is divided into five books, each existing of several Fen – a term that only applies to the Latin translation of Avicenna, comes from Arabic, and means ‘subdivision; section’. A Fen exists of tracts, which consists of sums, which are in turn divided into chapters. The 22nd Fen is about hernias and the anatomy of the abdominal wall.

Restorer of the anatomy

In the fourteenth and fifteenth century anatomical medicine was hardly part of the curriculum of the medical courses in Italy. The work of Avicenna was also barely known to doctors. Ferrari accurately applied the study of anatomy in his work, causing it to be part again of the medical curriculum. Therefore Ferrari sometimes is recognised as the restorer of anatomical science in Italy (Ferrari 1899, 144).

Friendship with the duke

Because Ferrari treated many nobles, he could consider some of them as his friends. His career flourished under three notable dukes of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti (1412-1447), Francesco Sforza (1447-1466) and Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1466-1476). In particular Francesco Sforza seemed to be a close friend (Albutt 1921, 478). This is evident for example, from the incipit of the second text of the Expositiones, which he dedicates to Francesco:

               ‘ad illustrissimum ducem Mediolani Franciscum Sfortiam vicecomitem.
               feliciter incipiunt.’ (part 3, fol. 2r)

Ferrari doesn’t only confirm his bond with the duke, but also covers a chapter of the Canon, which is about diseases that especially occur with soldiers. By treating these diseases in particular, Ferrari contributes (indirectly) to keeping the duke’s army healthy (Muccilo 1996, 674).

The Expositiones from Utrecht

The incunable O fol 13 contains no illustrations. Within the running text there is space left free for initials, but they are not filled in. The open spaces can be found in particular in the text with the commentary on Fen 22 of Avicenna. It only occurs two times in De urinis.

In addition, one of the former owners has made multiple notes next to both texts. Notes belonging to the same person can be found as well in part one of this incunable, next to the text Practica Antonii Guainerii Papiensis et omnia opera by Antonio Guainerio. Throughout the book, improvements are made and sentences that seemed to be of importance are underlined. Both the identity of the former owner and the contents of his notes are yet unclear. It is possible that research into this book will cast new light onto the history of this Utrecht Expositiones; in which context it was used and to which extend in later times Ferrari’s text was of influence to the medical world.

Further reading

  • Albutt, T.C., Greek medicine in Rome. The Fitzpatrick lectures on the history of medicine delivered at the Royal College of Physicians of London in 1909-1910, with other historical essays (Londen, 1921).
  • Dal Canton, I., M. Frosio-Roncalli & A. Dal Canton, ‘The famous case of rheumatic hematuria described by Giammatteo Ferrari da Grado, Professor at the University of Pavia (1432-1472)’, in: G. Eknoyan, S.G. Marketos, N.G. de Santo & S. G. Massry (ed.), History of nephrology, vol. 2 (Basel, 1997), p. 82-85.
  • Ferrari, H.M., Une chaire de médecine au XVe siècle: un professeur à l’Université de Pavie de 1432 à 1472 (Genève, 1899).
  • Muccillo, M., ‘Giovanni Matteo Ferrari da Grado’ in A.M. Ghisalberti (ed.) Dizionario biografico degli Italiani, vol. 46 (Rome, 1996), p. 672-675.
Femke van Hilten, August 2017
Missing initial fol 14r.
28r page with notes
Francesco Sforza

Giovanni Matteo Ferrari, Expositiones super tractatum De urinis et XII fen tertii Canonis Avicenna (O fol 13, dl. 2-3 rariora)

  • Bound with Antonio Guainerio, Practica Antonii Guainerii Papiensis [et] omnia opera (O fol 13, dl. 1 rariora)
  • Milan: Giacomo da Sanazzaro, 26 July and 17 November 1494. 2º.
  • Paper, 104 (pt. 2, commentary on Fen 22) + 40 (pt. 3, de urinis) ff., 294 x 209 mm.
  • Latin.