Leonardo da Vinci (15 April 1452 – 2 May 1519) is known as one of the most ornately curious man ever to have lived exploring many creative outlets and creating masterpieces of invention and design. However I’m not focusing today on his magnificent paintings and engineering designs of the High Renaissance. I’m here to discuss his anatomical drawings and the people who brought them to life.
Leonardo truly began to express the human figure as it existed in nature, looking into the geometry of the human form and the perfect dimensions of the trunk and limbs. He shows this research clearly through his depiction of the Vitruvian Man which shows his theory that the human body cites perfectly into a circle and square when the legs and arms are spread.
But soon he decided to dig deeper and wanted top discover what lay under the clothes of our skin, the muscular and skeletal form. The anatomy of human beings became an independent research topic for him in the 1490s. When Leonardo moved to Milan he was able to attend a medical research facility where he collaborated with medical university students and professors such as Marco Antonio Della Torre who allowed him access to dead bodies, precious resources that were jealously guarded if they were obtainable at all. His alleged first dissection in 1507-08 was of an old man from the hospital who had died. Leonardo reportedly spent hours carefully dissecting and studying the corpse and creating many pen and ink drawings. Afterwards he developed a taste for it and began doing practical dissections in hospitals located in Florence, Rome and Pavia. Altogether, he dissected 30 corpses in his lifetime. At first it was just the study of the muscles and skeleton but he soon moved on to individual organs such as the heart lungs and brain. He never thought of himself as a professional and so kept many of his findings private even though he had extensive sketch books filled with over 240 depictions. Many medical scientists and modern day critics compare Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings to beautiful pieces of art with real emotion behind them. This is because, I believe he drew with great respect for the dead, as each picture immortalised a real person.
At the time dissection was a new thing that was seen as taboo and perhaps Leonardo kept his research under wraps to avoid the prejudice surrounding the work he was doing. If he hadn’t kept some of his finding to himself medical knowledge would have developed much quicker as he was the first to accurately depict some parts of the human body.
But most astonishing of all was his discovery of the mechanics of the aortic valve. He discovered this by filling a cows heart with wax so it kept its shape then re-enacting the pump of blood. He called it the ‘heart twist’ because he believed the heart could wring itself out like a towel and that’s how it squeezed blood around our bodies. If only it had gone public because what he discovered only became common knowledge centuries later. I believe his anatomical discoveries to be among his greatest artworks and I consider him a mentor with my own art work which is now inspired by the human form, above and below the skin.