While Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s De proprietatibus rerum – a popular medieval encyclopaedia describing the properties of ‘things’ – has attracted the attention of scholars for centuries, far less well known is the British Library’s unique copy in the Mantuan dialect. This manuscript, Additional MS. 8785, was translated by Vivaldo Belcalzer, an educated councilman of Mantua, for the city’s signore, Guido Bonacolsi, in the first decade of the fourteenth century. The manuscript is evidently the original that was presented to Guido and includes an extensive, carefully executed decorative programme. This essay focuses on the rare depictions of human organs in the initials of Book Five, On the Parts of the Body, examined here for the first time and compared to contemporary examples of similar imagery. This article seeks to situate these remarkable and unique images, drawn at the turning point between traditional reliance on authoritative texts and a new appetite for scientific human dissection (first undertaken in Bologna in approximately 1315), within the broader context of medieval anatomical illustration at a significant moment in the history of medicine.
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