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Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist

by Martin Clayton and Ron Philo
Royal Collection Trust, London, UK, 2011
256 pp., illus. 126 col., 11 b/w. Paper: $22.50
ISBN: 978-1909741034.

Reviewed by Amy Ione
Director, The Diatrope Institute
Berkeley, CA, US


Every time I think surely we have run out of superlatives to cover Leonardo da Vinci 's (1452-1519) broad reach, I am once again reminded of how unique he was. One of the more extraordinary aspects of the work of this artist, scientist, and technologist is that, despite his reputation as an artist while he was alive, the high quality and level of details within his anatomical studies were largely unknown. Unpublished during his life, and meriting only brief mention in Vasari's mention of them in Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550), the full scope of what Leonardo accomplished was not fully conceptualized. The anatomical revolution entered the culture in fits and starts, but Leonardo's work was hardly studied or circulated beyond his immediate circle. As Clayton and Philo point out:

"[H]is reputation as the archetypal "Renaissance Man" has been as a painter who also happened to practice in the sciences. Leonardo himself would not have recognized this image. From the 1480s onwards his scientific studies were at least as important to him as his artistic activity. During the last decade of his life he seems not to have begun a single new painting, and in the years from 1508 to 1513, in particular, he worked essentially as a scientist who occasionally put his hand to paintings that he had begun in earlier years. And of all his scientific endeavors--optics, geology, botany, hydrodynamics--the field that engaged him most fully, and that in which he made the most far-reaching discoveries, was that of human anatomy (Clayton and Philo 2012: 7)."

Leonardo's anatomical drawings in the Royal Collection comprise this book. As the book explains, it is entirely plausible that Leonardo worked with Marcantonio della Torre at the University of Pavia and had hoped to publish his work with him. Della Torre died young, from plague, and although Leonardo continued his work on his own, the work remained unpublished. It is not known precisely how this group of drawings entered the collection, but it is believed they were either a gift of or acquired by Charles II (reigned 1660-85). They languished there for over a century until William Hunter (a surgeon and the first Professor of Anatomy at the Royal Academy of Art) found the surviving sketches in George III's library, around 1773. Hunter praised them, planned to publish them, and then unfortunately passed away before doing so. This extraordinary wealth of drawings, thus, continued to remain largely unavailable until facsimile editions were prepared between 1898 and 1916. We are lucky Hunter found them and that we have the opportunity to see, enjoy, and study this superb body of work.

The text of Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist is minimal, but it provides excellent foundational material. Prepared for a 2012 exhibition in The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, the book is both beautiful and informative. Each of the 87 anatomical studies has a descriptive summary, and these are accompanied by a general historical discussion that places the work in terms of science and art history. Given the ongoing discussions of whether recognition by one's peers are a component in evaluating whether or not works are creative, Leonardo's work makes the case that this is not an appropriate rubric. Although Vasari mentioned his diligence to human anatomy, his peers' knowledge of these studies largely missed the depth of the work and thus how extraordinary his observations were.

The drawings themselves are a testament to Leonardo's view that visual information can convey more than words. The book tells us that he dissected more than 30 human corpses as he explored every aspect of anatomy and physiology. The work produced is unparalleled in beauty, and its lucidity captures the workings of the body, even suggesting motion and dynamics. Some of this was aided by studies he did outside of the dissection room. Although I could not read the artist's copious notes, mirror-written in Italian, I was struck by the difficulty of the task on all levels. It is hard to conceptualize how he recorded so much detail, for he was both doing the dissection and notating what he saw as well. Yet, he took great care with each image.

Although the text is not lengthy, the authors do a good job in explaining that these studies--and all of his scientific studies--evolved out of Leonardo's initial impulse to write a treatise on painting. As it turned out, his desire to examine every aspect of the human body took on a life of its own. He found that he wasn't only enthralled by structural anatomy and physiology; he also wanted to understand conception, growth, the expression of emotions, the nature of the senses and so forth. The authors further expand on his enthusiasm by offering a summary of how the anatomical studies coincided with his work in other areas such as architecture and engineering. Since the book's focus is on Leonardo's work, it includes very few comparative images, but the authors still do offer a sense of how Leonardo's work fit within his historical time. This isn't really a criticism, but if I were to change anything, I would have added more images that placed Leonardo historically.

Two of the most remarkable images are on the front and back covers. The front cover is his 1489 drawing of a sectioned skull. Leonardo sawed the skull in half and then juxtaposed the two halves so that a viewer can see the cavities of the skull in relation to the surface features. The striking contrasts the image presents never fail to amaze me. The back cover depicts an opened uterus to show a baby in the breech position and is one of the few drawings to include color. Surrounded by small sketches and accompanying notes, it offers a good metaphor for Leonardo's drawings overall since reproduction was one of Leonardo's anatomical concerns. This drawing, like all of his work, looks alive. What I find most striking when looking at all of the drawings is their ability capture so much, even when his words feel strange. Notes that accompany the fetus, for example, explain: "In this child the heart does not beat and it does not breathe because it rests continually in water, and if it breathed it would drown" (p.206).

His drawings of the brain, probably a cow's brain, are also included. This was an extraordinary accomplishment because he made a wax mold to aid his studies, a technique that yielded more information than known by his contemporaries. The cow's brain gives one pause in other respects as well: Its brain is just about the same size and a human brain, yet cows are almost certainly less cognitively capable than humans. They also do not appear to have a mental life comparable to ours. That said, all of Leonardo's brains are enticing from so many vantage points. I was surprised to learn that one of my favorites is not included in the Royal Collection: "The Brain, cerebral ventricles and cranial nerves." Now in Weimar, and reproduced as a small image. To my eye it looks much like exploded brain images today and, like other of his brain images such as the depiction of nerve pathways to the brain, suggests the internal tension Leonardo faced when he found that the theories of his time didn't match his observations.

Many of the folios include several drawings that seem to be in conversation with one another. These perhaps help us envision how Leonardo was thinking about the dynamics of the body. One, the superficial anatomy of the shoulder and neck, presents a sequence suggesting a body turning in space, no doubt a combination of his dissection work and his experience in observing living forms. His many detailed drawings of muscles are not only elegant, but also display an intricate knowledge of the body. Even more noteworthy when looking at the sketches is how unique they were in his time, particularly the images related to the heart. As noted, researchers of his time did not have the insight to create comparable wax molds to study the forms before they began to decompose and they were was largely unaware of Leonardo's anatomical work.

Without a doubt, Leonardo rather than Vesalius' Fabrica, would now receive credit for the anatomical revolution in the sixteenth century, had Leonardo's work been studied. Comparing his works with those that were published it is hard not to miss how much Leonardo's drawings differ from the publications so instrumental to the anatomical revolution of the sixteenth century. Leonardo's notebooks are raw and fresh, with small sketches mixed with words and his mirror-written notes. Vesalius and other who presented anatomical studies around this time generally placed their figures in a scene, with narrative components in the background. Vesalius' muscle-men, for example, are often placed in front of a landscape or shown with narrative components. For example, an evocative plate in De Fabrica contains a skeletal image contemplating a skull on a lectern that reads: "Genius Lives on, all Else is Mortal." Similarly, Charles Estienne's prints include background imagery that makes them appear as much like an artistic narrative as an anatomical presentation. I admire the purity of Leonardo's sketches. I wonder if he would have preserved this had they been published under his supervision.

When I finished Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist my first thought was that this is an essential work of reference for artists, medical professionals, and Leonardo enthusiasts. My second thought was to wonder whether contemporary artists appreciate anatomy in the way Leonardo did. Contemporary work often conveys more of a superficial sense of figures, with more stress on an emotional rendering than naturalism and the way all the parts of the body function and work together. Looking at this beautiful compilation of Leonardo's studies, it is visually clear how different things are today than when he worked! Particularly noteworthy is that this kind of naturalism was emerging while he lived and Leonardo was among those who embraced it with a passion. We see this passion enshrined due to his ability to combine artistry with the bodily form, as he knew it from dissection. The works grasp a kind a visual depth and emotional substance we can still admire even if many chose not to emulate it.


Vasari, Giorgio. 1550/1915. Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptures and Architects. Translated by de Vere, Gaston Du. X vols. Vol. III. London: Philip Lee Warner.

Vesalius, Andreas. 1543. De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem [Title page: Andreae Vesalii Bruxellensis, scholae medicorum Patauinae professoris De humani corporis fabrica libri septem]. Basileae [Basel]: Ex officina Basileae [Basel]: Ex officina Joannis Oporini.

Note: The Leonardo drawings in the Royal Collection are all available at http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/microsites/leonardo/.

Last Updated 2nd Mar 2015

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