Issue Number: 114
A new show of Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical studies reveals how he produced some of the most scientifically groundbreaking drawings in western art. By Hugo Chapman
Leonardo da Vinci, 'Detail of Studies of the Coronary Vessels and Valves of the Heart of an Ox', c.1511-13. The Royal Collection © 2011, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The multi-faceted nature of Leonardo’s genius means that he is a near inexhaustible subject for exhibitions, and the runaway success of the recent show at the National Gallery, which focused on the artist’s Milanese period (1483-99) demonstrates his enduring fascination. The anatomical drawing exhibition that opens at the Queen’s Gallery in May is a natural sequel to it, since it was in Milan, when Leonardo taught pupils for the first time, that he began to study anatomy.
Initially the subject was intended to be a small part of a planned treatise on the art of painting. Yet, as was often the case, Leonardo’s relentless desire to delve deeper – literally so in his study of corpses – meant that his anatomical knowledge far outstripped that required for painting. By the late 1480s he was already planning a separate treatise on anatomy that ranged from foetal development to the working of the senses. The Queen’s Gallery show, derived from the peerless collection of Leonardo’s drawings that have been in the Royal Collection since the late seventeenth century, charts four decades of the artist’s campaign to pursue this wildly ambitious and ultimately unfulfilled programme that ranged far beyond the confines of medical knowledge of the period.
Leonardo’s shaky grasp of Latin, which was used in the medical texts of the time (an outcome of his illegitimacy that meant that he was not educated to follow in the footsteps of his father, a successful notary) proved fortuitous. Rather than learning from books, he had to build up his anatomical knowledge through observation, based on dissections of animals and cadavers. The exhibition includes Leonardo’s vivid account of around 1507, penned in his characteristic mirror-writing, of his postmortem of an old man who had expired without suffering in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, Florence.
Leonardo da Vinci, 'Studies of the Foetus in the Womb', c.1510-13, The Royal Collection © 2011, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Yet the Queen’s Gallery exhibition demonstrates most compellingly that it was through drawing, more than the written word, that Leonardo processed and analysed what he observed as he cut and sawed his way through the unclaimed bodies that he dissected. There is no sense in the drawings of the reek of blood and decay that he must have endured to harvest the knowledge he sought. If he made sketches with gore-covered hands they have not survived, and one can only speculate that such sheets underlie the beautifully lucid drawings most commonly executed in pen over a chalk or charcoal underdrawing. The techniques he used to describe his discoveries evolved over the years: the taut parallel hatching found in his brilliant series of cross-sections of skulls from the late 1480s giving way to a more varied repertory of curved strokes that hug the form, as in his haunting studies around 1510 of a foetus snugly curled in a womb.
By the end of his life Leonardo had dissected more than 30 bodies and had gained an unequalled, if at times misguided, knowledge of the working of the body. This vital data remained hidden since his anatomical drawings were never engraved. The Queen’s Gallery show offers a tantalising sense of how medical knowledge might have been revolutionised by Leonardo’s invention of the anatomical textbook illustration with cross-sections, sequential stripping of layers and multi-angled viewpoints.
Through the drawings we can partake in Leonardo’s reverence of the numinous beauty of natural forms, coloured by his practical experience as an engineer and architect. It is this reverence that made him describe with such delicacy in pen on blue paper the sturdy roundness of an ox heart and its valves and arteries (c.1511-13). Leonardo’s drawings invite us to share his wonder at the design of the human body, and perhaps pay closer attention to the marvels of nature to be found at the supermarket meat counter.