Devil's Own: Fugitive Sheets

April 29, 2014

The study of the human body was intimately connected with art during the Renaissance era. From this visual culture emerged fugitive sheets, three-dimensional illustrations of human internal organs. Although widely disseminated from the 1530s until the late seventeenth century, fugitive sheets were typically printed as a single broad sheet rather than as part of a bound volume, explaining why so few exist today (hence the “fugitive” designation).

Elusive as they are, Duke’s History of Medicine Collections includes ten fugitive sheets dating to the renaissance. In 1956, the late Mary D.B.T. Semans ’39, Hon. ’83 donated the first eight sheets, as part of the collection of her first husband, Josiah Charles Trent ’34. Last fall, their daughter, Rebecca Trent Kirkland ’64, M.d. ’68, contributed the remaining two sheets.

The sheet pictured above, a 1658 print from London, is representative of the genre. One can (delicately) raise the torso of both the male and female figures to examine several tiers of labeled body parts beneath. An accompanying page would have held physiological descriptions. The original purpose of these sheets remains unclear. Some scholars have speculated that sheets composed in Latin, such as the pictured one, were teaching aids for medical students and aspiring surgeons. According to Rachel Ingold, the curator of the collections, fugitive sheets were printed in the vernacular over time, making them more accessible to a lay public that was curious about the human body’s internal workings.

Today, art historians study fugitive sheets as examples of renaissance art, filled with religious and moral themes. Additionally, first-year medical students at Duke examine the sheets to understand the advancement of medical knowledge from these early times.