Recently, we tagged along on a tour of the Queen’s Gallery’s current exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci – Anatomist, led by its impressively knowledgeable curator, Martyn Clayton. We highly recommend this exhibition to you all, but for those who can’t make it, here’s what we learned.
The exhibition begins with a short introductory film. Nature has also produced an excellent video summary of the exhibition, which you can see at the bottom of this page.
Standing next to the album in which the polymath’s 87 anatomical works first appeared, Martyn outlined its provenance. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) intended to publish the anatomical drawings in his lifetime, but he was notoriously unreliable when it came to finishing projects, and he also encountered legal obstacles.
In the end, Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) claimed the credit for publishing the first modern anatomical treatise, when he published De humani corporis fabrica (On the Structure of the Human Body) in 1543.
After da Vinci’s death, his works were bequeathed to his favourite pupil, Francesco Melzi (c.1491-1570). Following Melzi’s death, his heirs sold the drawings to sculptor Pompeo Leoni (c.1533–1608), son of Leone Leoni (c.1509-1590), who bound the artworks into several albums. The album containing the anatomical drawings was titled Disegni di Leonardo da Vinci restaurati da Pompeo Leoni (Drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, preserved by Pompeo Leoni).
It was Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel (1585-1646), who brought the drawings to England, after a Grand Tour with architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652) in the early 17th century. Later, during the reign of Charles II, the drawings entered the Royal Collection but weren’t published until around 1900, when they began to be removed from the album. Only then was Leonardo’s anatomical work fully appreciated.
The drawings are annotated with Leonardo’s peculiar mirror-image writing – he was left handed, and didn’t want to smear his ink. The annotations were for his own benefit, rather than being intended to publication. If you purchases the iPad App that accompanies the exhibition, you’ll get full translations of these notes.
In general, Leonardo’s anatomical drawings were made only partly in light of human dissection. About thirty human cadavers were used, but he was just as influenced by animal dissection, and the prevailing Aristotelian and Galenic paradigms, so the illustrations were often an amalgam of several mindsets. Only with close examination of the drawings can scholars of medical history determine what genuinely new discoveries were made.
For Leonardo, the veins and arteries were entirely separate – a false notion inherited from antiquity, which he accepted until the end. He thought veins arose in the liver, and arteries in the heart. It was over a century before Englishman William Harvey (1578-1657) wrote about the circulation of the blood in 1628, and later still before microscopists could confirm this radical departure from orthodoxy. On the other hand, Leonardo didn’t seem to have much time for the prevailing four humours theory of disease, and his notes barely referred to them.
Leonardo started his anatomy drawings well before he dissected human corpses. The first series dates from about 1489 (where he drew from skulls, and from animals such as bears), whereas his human dissections date from 1507-1513. The original impetus was the hope that anatomical knowledge would inform a ‘science’ of painting (for example, the study of musculature), together with optics, perspective, atmospheric chemistry of pigments, and so on. It quickly became apparent that anatomy was a vast subject, and required a separate treatise.
When Leonardo attempted a ‘proportional’ approach to anatomy, he produced his most famous drawing of all, the Vitruvian Man (not in the exhibition). While it remains an iconic image, this line of investigation didn’t produce any real breakthroughs in the reproduction of the human form.
The proportions of the head, and a standing nude, c. 1490; The head of Judas, c. 1495
The first room of the exhibition is filled with Leonardo’s studies from his first foray into anatomy, which petered out in the mid-1490s when he was commissioned to do The Last Supper in Milan.
The second room shows how Leonardo took up his medical investigations again, some 12 years later in 1507, when he began to have access to fresh cadavers. The Battle of Anghiari painting, in the Salone dei Cinquecento in Venice, prompted a return to anatomy and some related drawings are here.
Martyn Clayton told us that one of the most significant documents in the exhibition is the Anatomical Manuscript B, which summarises the autopsy of a centenarian. It’s the first known record of a diagnosis of death by coronary blockage, cirrhosis of the liver, and narrowing of the arteries. The actual dissection notes (now lost) were worked up into fair copies, which are on display.
A famous drawing from 1509 – 10 attempted to show all the internal organs of a woman, except the gastrointestinal tract. There is a two-chambered heart with only ventricles, as well liver, spleen, and kidneys. However, the uterus – depicted with seven chambers, following Aristotle, and suspended by massive ligaments transcribed from a cow – is bizarrely inaccurate. Since executed criminals tended to be male, female parts were often derived from animals instead.
Since antiquity, it was believed that the brain consisted of three bulbous ventricles aligned in a row, which housed the faculties of imagination, memory and reasoning. Leonardo’s techniques for dissecting the brain were sophisticated – he poured molten wax into its base, flooding the cerebral ventricles, the first time such a technique was used. However, the ventricles weren’t as tradition said they were, and the brain was too soft to make out distinct structure. There also appeared to be no nerves originating from the ventricles. Leonardo may have concluded that the brain was too complex to understand, as he abandoned further investigation into it.
After 1509, Leonardo was probably working with professor of anatomy Marcantonio Della Torre (1481-1511) at the University of Pavia, outside Milan. Here, with access to some 20 cadavers, he concentrated primarily on the bones and muscles. These structures were easier to understand than the brain, and required less grappling with traditional medical beliefs – one could simply examine the skeleton as a machine.
The muscles of the shoulder, arm and leg, c. 1510; The muscles of the shoulder; 1510
At this time, Leonardo developed a rotational system of drawing, showing bones & muscles from various angles. A particularly intricate drawing of the spine was given the full architectural treatment in top, side and exploded views, below.
Another drawing revealed six views of the hand with different layers exposed, including bones, muscles and tendons.
When Della Torre suddenly died of the plaque in 1511, Leonardo’s access to human cadavers ceased, severely affecting the progress of his anatomical treatise. His patrons in Milan were ousted by Swiss forces, and he retreated to Francesco Melzi’s family villa at Vaprio d’Adda, east of Milan. Leonardo returned to the dissection of animals, concentrating on details such as the thoracic and abdominal cavities of oxen.
The foetus in the womb, c. 1511; Studies of foetus in the womb, and external genitalia, c. 1510-13
Perhaps Leonardo’s most famous anatomical drawing is a two-colour cross section of a foetus in a womb (above left), one of the highlights of this exhibition. However, it too betrays his lack of access to female cadavers – his fallopian tubes connect to the womb from below, when in reality they come from above. The drawing also reveals multiple placental membranes, which are found in cows but not in humans. This iconic image is a chimera.
Leonardo’s investigation of the heart took physicians a long time to properly understand. Once again he used wax injection, this time into the aortic valve. He noticed a swelling at the base of the valve, now called the sinus of Valsalva. Into a glass model of the heart built from his wax cast, he injected water with a grass seed suspension, and noticed circular vortices in the swollen section. From this he concluded that the swelling aided the directional flow of blood downstream from the valve. This was only confirmed in the 1980s with modern imaging technology.
Leonardo clearly understood the function of the heart valves in a one-way system, and must have struggled to reconcile this with the prevailing wisdom that the veins and arteries were separate. Despite examining hearts from many animals, he never saw that the veins emptied into the heart – something that seems obvious today. This inability to reconcile evidence with ideology was the end of Leonardo’s anatomical studies, and despite returning to Rome – the centre of Italian printing – he never compiled or published the treatise that he had set out to do. He died six years later in France, his findings forgotten.
After this excellent tour, we bought a copy of Martyn Clayton’s fabulous 256-page exhibition catalogue, which includes medical input from Ron Philo. It’s a genuine and honourable attempt to combine art, science and history all in one exhibition.
Leonardo da Vinci – Anatomist is at the Queen’s Gallery until 7 October 2012, and photography is allowed. You can also see the Royal Collection’s Leonardo da Vinci drawings here.
Photos by Sven Klinge
(please credit photographer & website when using these photos)
(Thanks to the School of Advanced Study, and Nature, for these clips)