Leonardo da Vinci’s ground-breaking studies of the human body and anatomy are to go on display this week in London, England. The exhibition, which takes place almost 500 years after his death, will feature 87 pages from Leonardo’s notebooks, including 24 sides of previously unexhibited material. Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist opens at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, on Friday, 4 May.
Although Leonardo is recognised as one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, he was also one of the most original and perceptive anatomists of all time. The exhibition tells the story of his greatest challenge as he embarked upon a campaign of dissection in hospitals and medical schools to investigate bones, muscles, vessels and organs. Had Leonardo’s studies been published, they would have formed the most influential work on the human body ever produced. Some of his findings were not to be repeated for hundreds of years.
On Leonardo’s death in 1519, his drawings remained unpublished and were effectively lost to the world until the 20th century. Instead, in 1543, the Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius published his treatise, De humani corporis fabrica (‘On the fabric of the human body’) which became the most important work on anatomy ever published – to this day anatomical history is divided into pre- and post-Vesalian periods.
Among the firsts that Leonardo achieved, is the first accurate depiction of the spine in history. This beautiful drawing, dating from c.1510-11, has never been surpassed. Two years earlier Leonardo had sat with a 100-year-old man hours from death in a hospital in Florence, before dissecting him to find the cause of ‘so sweet a death’. In his post-mortem examination notes, displayed for the first time, he gives the first descriptions of cirrhosis of the liver and narrowing of the arteries in the history of medicine. During this dissection, he also drew the appendix – in what is thought to be the first depiction or description of this structure in Western medicine.
From 1511, Leonardo began to focus his efforts on analysing the structure and workings of the heart. Dissecting the hearts of oxen, he produced a series of densely annotated sheets, some of which will go on display for the first time. He drew and described functions that were unknown to anyone else at this time, including what is now referred to as the ‘sinus of Vasalva’ (related to the closing of the aortic value) which bears the name of the next anatomist to describe the feature, 200 years after Leonardo. He came very close to discovering the circulation of the blood a century before William Harvey, but it is with the heart that his anatomical investigations came to an end.
Professor Peter Abrahams, Professor of Clinical Anatomy at Warwick Medical School, was part of the team who worked on preparing the exhibition. He said, “I would say that this is one of the most exciting things I have done in my career. The drawings are unbelievable; they are an anatomist’s dream. It’s hard to believe they are 500 years old and yet the amazing thing is that the capture of anatomical detail is still completely relevant – he even anticipated our modern views seen in scanners today.”
Highlights also include a striking image of a skull sectioned and staring straight out of the page. Produced in 1489, the drawing shows the first human skull Leonardo was able to obtain – prompting him to begin the incredible notebook now in the Royal Collection, known as ‘Anatomical Manuscript B’.
The most beautiful of Leonardo’s anatomical drawings – a child in breech position in the womb, c.1511 – is also going on display. Leonardo almost never used colour in his anatomical drawings but made an exception here, using red chalk to suggest the potential of the living child. In fact Leonardo based the study on the dissection of a pregnant cow. One drawing, dating from 1509-10, on which Leonardo transcribed all of his discoveries on the inner workings of the body to that date, bears his inky thumbprint and the creases from being folded into quarters to fit into his notebook.
Exhibition curator Martin Clayton said, “Leonardo’s drawings are among the finest depictions of the human body ever created. Had he published this work, he would now be known as one of the greatest scientists in history. This exhibition will be the greatest opportunity since Leonardo’s death to marvel at his achievement.”
The pages from Leonardo’s anatomical notebooks were pasted into albums by the sculptor Pompeo Leoni, and one of the albums, containing all of Leonardo’s surviving anatomical studies, arrived in England in the 17th century. The album, known as the ‘Leoni binding’, was probably acquired by Charles II and has been in the Royal Collection since at least 1690. It goes on display for the first time in the exhibition.
To coincide with the exhibition, a special iPad app that reverses and translates the thousands of notes made by the artist in his distinctive mirror-writing, launches today, revealing his words to a mass audience for the first time. The app, Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy, brings to life all 268 of Leonardo’s anatomical drawings in the Royal Collection.
The app includes interactive 3D anatomical models, pinch-zoom functionality and interviews with experts on Leonardo’s work and the history of medicine. It even allows users to reverse and translate the thousands of notes made by the artist in his distinctive mirror-writing, direct from the pages of his notebooks.
Martin Clayton, who is also the author of the app, commented, “Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy is a fantastic way to explore some of the most amazingly detailed and accurate anatomical drawings of all time in the most minute detail. Leonardo would have been fascinated by modern medical imaging, and I think would have embraced the way in which this app brings his drawings to life.”
Jemima Rellie, Director of Publishing and New Media at the Royal Collection, added, “Tablet computers provide a remarkable opportunity for art-book publishers like the Royal Collection to offer rich-media alternatives to our printed catalogues. We are thrilled with the results of this, our first e-book, and particularly the extraordinary ways in which it allows you to interact with high-resolution reproductions of Leonardo’s drawings, in your own hands.”
Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy is priced at £9.99 ($13.99) and will be available to download via the iTunes App Store.
Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist will be taking place at The Queen’s Gallery Buckingham Palace, 4 May–7 October 2012.
Tickets and visitor information: www.royalcollection.org.uk or +44 (0)20 7766 7301.
Sources: The Royal Collection, University of Warwick
See also Leonardo Da Vinci’s Representation of Animals in His Works