Giulio Cesare Casseri (1552–1616), whose name was Latinized into Iulius Casserius, was born in Piacenza; therefore, the nickname Piacentino (Placentinus) was often used. According to Sterzi, who based his claim on a statement contained in Casserius’s will, his date of birth was around 1552. It should be noted, however, that although most modern authors accept this date, some still report 1561 as his birth date on the basis of the inscription appearing on the portrait published in Casserius’s work De Vocis Auditusque organis that ascribes to the author the age of 39 years.
According to most of his early biographers, Casserius’s family was very poor and the young Iulius, perhaps as the servant of some student, moved to Padua, the city that shared with Bologna the reputation of being the seat of Italy’s
most illustrious university. He soon assumed the job of servant in the house of the famed Gerolamo Fabrici d’Acquapendente (Fabricius), Public Lecturer of Anatomy and Surgery. As Tomasini reports, “from a servant he became first Fabricius’s auditor, then instructor and brilliant disciple.”
We do not know when Casserius matriculated in the School of Medicine of the Universita` Artista. As mentioned several times in his works, Casserius, in addition to Fabricius, had the well-known physician Gerolamo Mercuriale (Mercurialis) as a teacher and mentor, who held the chair of Clinical Medicine of Padua in the years 1569 –1587.
The precise date he obtained his degree in medicine and philosophy is unknown, because the official records
are missing from 1580 to 1587; a likely date is ca.1580. After the award of his degree, Casserius, in addition to giving private lectures on anatomy to the students of the Universita` Artista and working as Fabricius’s preparator, started a practice as physician and surgeon in Padua that was very successful.
In 1584, Casserius’s reputation was already so great that he took Fabricius’s place as member of the board of examiners for the finals in surgery. These examinations, held in private houses in the presence of the Rector
of the University, conferred the license to practice surgery. The profession of surgery was considered in
those days as a minor branch of Medicine and the surgeon had to take an oath that he would not involve himself
in the treatment of serious diseases, but would call a licensed physician whenever the patient was in real danger.
Casserius acted as examiner until 1598 when the job was re-assumed by Fabricius, possibly because of the fierce rivalry between the two concerning their professional practices and the teaching of Anatomy. According to Sterzi, who bases his report on the proceedings of the Natio Germanica (the most important and powerful of Padua’s national corporations of students), the first hint of the quarrel became public in 1595 when Fabricius, after his temporary leave for illness, resented the enthusiasm with which the students, particularly the Germans, thanked Casserius for his teaching as substitute lecturer of Anatomy. Things worsened in the academic year of 1597–1598 when Fabricius had to shorten his public course for lack of cadavers, while, at the same time, Casserius was able to give, in his house, a private course of 5 weeks, during which he dissected one monkey, several dogs, and nine cadavers. Again, the praise of the students, who sent Casserius a letter of gratitude and presented him with an expensive silver chandelier, served to further increase the jealousy of the old master. As recorded in the proceedings of both the Universita`Artista and of the Natio Germanica, Fabricius reacted by applying to the academic authorities to enforce the old (1586) statutory rule that private lectures were forbidden. As a consequence, there is no record of private lectures given by Casserius until 1604, a prohibition that must have greatly embittered Casserius.
Although no names were aired, the conflict was echoed in the relevant dedications to the Duke of Parma (Ranuccio Farnese) and to three Venetian noblemen (Jacopo Foscarini, Leonardo Donati, and GiovanniDolfin) appearing in the preface of two books on very similar topics and printed almost at the same time by Casserius (De Vocis Auditusque Organis Historia Anatomica, Ferrariae 1600–1601) and by Fabricius (De Visione Vocis Auditus, Venetiis, 1600). The handling of the material in both treatises is much the same, each book being organized into three sections: Anatomy, Physiology, and Philosophy. However, whereas Casserius, although not mentioning Fabricius, scrupulously reports the discoveries made by previous authors, no citations are present in Fabricius’s work.
Both authors state, Casserius in the preface and Fabricius in the dedication to Foscarini, that they were preparing a collection of anatomical tables (Theatrum Anatomicum) illustrating the entire human body. Fabricius maintains that there were more than 300 of these, each of them in a colored and in a black and white version, whereas Casserius, in a letter dated 1613, asserts that he had ready for publication 150 figures all engraved in copper. It is impossible to ascertain who—the old teacher or his younger rival—first had the idea for the atlas, which had been required by the medical students themselves. Ironically, neither Casserius nor Fabricius lived to see their respective tables published.
Curiously, this academic fight between the old master and the younger rival who wanted the Chair of Anatomy is not mentioned in the English literature, where Casserius is depicted as the successor of Fabricius. This becomes even
stranger if one considers that the rivalry between the two was clearly reported even in classic textbooks. However,
the enmity between the two, did not prevent both of them (Fabricius as Professor of Anatomy and Surgery; Casserius as Teacher of Anatomy, Physiology, and Surgery) from signing Harvey’s doctoral diploma on April 28, 1602.
Because of Fabricius’s unavailability due to illness, the Rector of the Universita` Artista, after a specific request made by the medical students, asked Casserius in the winter of 1604 to present the Anatomy course. Although Fabricius gave his formal assent to this, Casserius refused to teach in the public theatre opened by Fabricius in 1594 and gave
the lectures in the private theatre he had built at his home. The great success that Casserius’s teaching received among the medical students is attested to by an official document drawn by Marco Antonio Coradino Stella, notary of the Universita` Artista, on April 23, 1604, at the closure of the Anatomy course.
From 1605–1608, Casserius, who was preparing his second great work, the Pentaestheseion, went on to give well-attended private lectures on Anatomy and Surgery, while, at the same time, the teaching activity of Fabricius as public lecturer was reduced to a minimum. Such a situation led the Venetian authorities to intervene by a Dogal decree dated August 25, 1609, and, for the first time in the history of the University of Padua, the teaching of Anatomy was separated from that of Surgery, the latter being officially given to Casserius, whereas Fabricius continued to hold the chair of Anatomy as Professore Supraordinario.
Shortly after the nomination of Casserius to the public lectorship of Surgery, the well-known Danish anatomist Caspar Bartholin (Bartolinus) visited Padua. As reported in the preface of his Institutiones Anatomicae (1632), Bartholin held Casserius in the highest esteem. In 1613, Fabricius, having reached the fiftieth year of public lectorship, was given official permission to reduce his teaching burden and, although he tried to have Giulio Cesare Sala appointed as his substitute, the job was given to Casserius. However, the latter once again refused to teach in the public theatre and held his dissections in his own home theatre.
In 1614, in recognition of his professional and academic merits, Casserius, to whom the Chair of Anatomy had previously been offered by the University of Parma, first, and the University of Turin, later, was made Knight of San Marco, the highest honor bestowed by the Republic. One year later, he was reconfirmed as public lector of Surgery with a substantial raise in salary. In January 1616, he started the Anatomy course, which, following the recommendations of the academic authorities, he presented, for the first and only time, in that public theatre where, for all his life, he had dreamed of teaching as Public Lector of Anatomy. He was now at the zenith of his fame and the course, which lasted for 3 weeks, was so successful that the students of all nations published a laudatory booklet
to demonstrate their gratitude.
Shortly after this applauded performance, Casserius contracted a fever and died on the evening of March 8. His body was buried in the church of the Eremitani, in front of the chapel painted by Mantegna, where his tomb was reported as existing until 1626. Old Fabricius, still holding the official chair of Anatomy, outlived him by 3 years. Upon Fabricius’s death (1619), the chairs of Anatomy and Surgery were once again reunited and were given to Adriaan van den Spieghel
Casserius was the author of three anatomical works. The first two, De vocis auditusque organis Historia anatomica (Ferrariae 1600–1601) and Pentaestheion, hoc est, De quinque sensibus liber, Organorum Fabricam. . . (Venetiis, 1609), were edited by Casserius himself. The third, Iulii Casseri Placentini Tabulae Anatomicae LXXIIX, omnes novae nec ante hac visa. Daniel Bucretius…XX quae deerant supplevit et omnium explicationes addidit (Venetiis, 1627), was published by Daniel Rindfleisch (Bucretius) 11 years after Casserius’s death.
The first work, De vocis auditusque organis, reprinted in Venice in 1607, is a large volume in folio dedicated to Ranuccio Farnese, Duke of Parma and Piacenza, whose portrait and that of the 39-year-old Casserius dissecting
a human hand is reproduced on the first pages of the book. It contains two treatises: De Larynge vocis organo, printed in 1601, and the De Aure auditionis organo, printed earlier (1600).
Preceding the first treatise, there are 60 unnumbered pages containing the title page, drawn by the famous Jacopo Ligozzi, as well as containing the dedication, the preface, and a letter by T.M. Turquet, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Paris, who urges Casserius to publish his findings by saying: “Twice gives (he) who gives at the right time (bis dat, qui tempestive dat)”. There also are 14 congratulatory poems and an author index with 163 citations, (but no mention of Fabricius), the table of contents that presents the chapters in alphabetic order, and, finally, an index of the 34 tables engraved in copper (22 from the first and 12 from the second treatise). The latter were drawn by the Swiss-German painter Joseph Murer (or Maurer) who, as stated by Casserius himself (page 79 of the II Treatise), resided at his home during the preparation of the book. Each treatise is divided into three parts (Libri). The first (Fabrica) describes, starting from the superficial structures inward, the anatomy of the organ concerned first in the human adult and in the fetus, then the same organ is followed through a series of animals. The second (Actione) shows how the parts function, and the third (Usu) describes what that function is.
Casserius’s contemporaries, with the exception only of Riolanus, deemed his work superior to Fabricius’s De Visione, Voce, Auditu. Furthermore, Sterzi maintains that it represents the first true treatise on the comparative anatomy of these organs. For the first time, Casserius states that the skeleton of the human larynx is cartilaginous and not osseous, and he correctly illustrates the ventricles of the larynx, the anatomy and function of laryngeal muscles, and provides a description of laryngectomy, which corresponds to the superior tracheotomy of modern times. Further-
more, he mentions, before Stensen (1661) did, the sublingual glands and their ducts.
The work also contains important findings on the human ear: the structure of the auricle, the difference between the adult and the infant temporal bone, the observation about the obliquity of the tympanic membrane, the description of the middle ear with the oval and round windows, the statement that there are only three semicircular canals, and the first description of the spiral lamina. However, Sterzi states that Casserius erroneously considered the thyroid as a gland lubricating the larynx and that he did not consider the role of the eustachian tube in the aeration of the middle ear. Concerning deafness, Casserius supports the theory, originated by Aristotle, that it is due to the putrefaction of cerumen, which he calls excrementum auris. Casserius breaks entirely new ground and the presence of errors and omissions, therefore, is fully understandable.
The second book, the Pentaestheseion, had great success among contemporaries as shown by the many reprints. All editions were in folio, with the exception of the one published in 1612 that was in reduced format; in addition, the
1622 edition, at variance with the others, was under heading “De Nova Anatomia … Authore Iulio Placentino”. It is a 360-page volume dedicated to the Duke of Bavaria, Prince Maximilian. The introductory part consists of a letter to the reader in which Casserius reports that he was prompted to publication, despite a few malevolent critics, by the favorable reception of his first work. There is also a short laudatory poem by Caspar Bartholin, who had been Casserius’s friend and student.
The book contains five treatises devoted to each sense organ. Before the treatises, there is a long philosophical discussion on the nature and role of sense organs in which Casserius maintains that touch is the fundamental sense from which all the other derive, and that all sensations go to the brain, a statement fully in line with the inscription appearing in the frontispiece of De Vocis Auditusque where Casserius is portrayed while dissecting a human hand:
“Rimatur manus apta manum: Mens erue mentem” (the trained hand dissects the hand: Mind, do disclose the
mind!). Sterzi credits Casserius with having provided the first correct description of the eye and of its accessory organs; he gives a detailed account of the orbit and of the six eye muscles, correcting a mistake by both Galen and Vesalius, who described as a normal human structure the coanoides, a muscle that is present only in animals.
The Tabulae Anatomicae, his third major work, contains many famous illustrations, which were drawn by Odoardo Fialetti, a pupil of Tintoretto. The images represent, as Singer notes, “the model for the copper plate illustrator as those of Vesalius and Ruini are for the woodcut operator.” They were published 11 years after Casserius’s death by Bucretius. He used them as an atlas to illustrate the work, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, which was left unfinished by his teacher Spigelius, who had suddenly died in 1625 at the age of 47, and who had been successor to both Casserius and Fabricius as Professor of Anatomy and Surgery.
References and Further Reading
- Clinical Anatomy
- Anatomical Science International
Finger S. 1994. Origins of neuroscience, a history of explorations into brain function. New York: Oxford University Press.
- The Anatomical Record
- Journal of Anatomy
- Science Direct
Sterzi G. 1910. Giulio Casseri, anatomico echirurgo (1552 c.-1616). Nuovo Arch Veneto
Tomasini I. 1630. Illustrium virorum elogia iconibus exornata. Patavii: D. Pasquardum et Socium.
- The Quick and the Dead
- Iulius Casserius and the First Anatomically Correct Depiction of the Circulus Arteriosus Cerebri (of Willis)
- Art as science: scientific illustration, 1490-1670 in drawing, woodcut and copper plate.
Bartholin T. 1665. Praefatio. In: Lyser M, editor. Culter Anatomicus. Hafnia: Haubold.
- Giulio Cesare Casseri (c. 1552–1616): The Servant Who Became an Anatomist
- Galileo Project
- Wonders of the Human Body