Leonardo and the Reinvention of Anatomy
September 16, 2013
Location: Foerderer Auditorium, Thomas Jefferson University
2016 will mark the 500th anniversary of the conclusion of Leonardo da Vinci’s exploration of the human body. Denounced by a German collaborator for necromancy, he will be barred by the Church from even entering the Ospedale di Santo Spirito, on grounds that he was “a heretic and cynical dissector of cadavers”. Soon thereafter he will accept the invitation of Francis I and move to France, one of the first in a long line of bright Italians bound to die on foreign soil.
Leonardo’s adventure in anatomy spans forty years, entails the dissection of more than thirty men, women, and children, and leaves us with hundreds of breathtakingly beautiful drawings. They are the congealed thoughts of a brain that always thought in pictures. But they also show us that the boundaries between art and science are illusory. Leonardo would have surely laughed at C.P. Snow’s concept of the “two cultures”, since he considered himself a humanist who happened to be both a scientist and an artist.
And Leonardo broke medical ground in multiple ways. From pioneering the injection of molten wax into cerebral ventricles so to better study them, to multiple views of various specimens, to the recurrent use of cross-sections and cutouts, he gave us his unique visual and spatial perception of reality. He also relied on ‘exploded’ views, and the use of guide lines to show the multilayer location of various parts. And he made great use of strings and wires to mimic the function and position of muscles.
In fact, he was the first to describe (and draw) many previously unseen structures, since to him mankind came in three flavors: “those who see; those who only see when shown; and those who can’t see at all.”
And Leonardo could definitely see. And he could draw too. As Kenneth Clark later put it, “It is often said that Leonardo drew so well because he knew about things; It is truer to say that he knew about things because he drew so well.”
His anatomical drawings are bold, courageous, scientifically sound and inspiringly beautiful. They are probably his greatest achievement as a human being, and in fact make us proud of belonging to the same animal species, even though Leonardo might not have returned us the favor, since he was famous to quip that “most human beings are only good for filling toilets”.
Still, his drawings are the first serious step towards modern medicine, and definitely worth a revisiting half-a-millennium later.