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Monday, March 30, 2020

Leonardo's Anatomy

Vitruvian Man as seen by Leonardo da Vinci
There's probably no serious artist today who has not seen and/or heard of the Vitruvian Man. Most such artists would tell you that it was a drawing contrived by Leonardo da Vinci. It would, no doubt, surprise them to know that they're only partially correct. There's more to the story than that. As the name would suggest, Vitruvian Man was the brain-child of a Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, (commonly known as Vitruvius). He was a Roman author, architect, civil engineer, and military engineer during the 1st century BC, known for his multi-volume work titled De Architecture. His discussion of perfect proportion in architecture and the human body led to the famous Renaissance drawing by Leonardo da Vinci of Vitruvian Man. Vitruvius was also the one who, in 40 BCE, invented the idea that all buildings should have three attributes: firmitas, utilitas, and venustas, meaning: strength, utility, and beauty. These principles were later adopted by the Romans. The concept of the Vitruvian Man emerged through his belief that the principles governing the representation of the human form also applied to temple architecture in terms of weight, symmetry and proportion. It was he, rather than Leonardo, who first gave birth to the concept of the Vitruvian Man (above).

Leonardo's Human Skull, 1849
One might therefore think Leonardo "stole" his Vitruvian Man from the ancient Roman intellect. In all fairness, Leonardo gave credit where it was due, titling his work: Le Proporzioni del Corpo Umano Secondo Vitruvio (The Proportions of the Human Body According to Vitruvius). Thus, more accurately, Leonardo was merely "influenced" by Vitruvius. Leonardo began his studies of the human anatomy with drawings of the human skull (above) in 1489. He borrowed three-dimensional drawing techniques from architecture that had never been seen applied to anatomical studies before. A new technical vocabulary for anatomical drawings was created and da Vinci's sketches in plan, section, elevation, and perspective marked a massive progression in how the body was documented. If getting your gear together and heading out for an evening of life drawing sounds like more trouble than it's worth, consider what Leonardo endured for the sake of educating his own singular vision. Rumors of his resorting to grave robbery persist to this day, but the truth is that he was allowed to dissect and study corpses at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. Criticized for his undertaking, Leonardo passionately defended the purpose of his anatomical drawings.

An early anatomical drawing by Leonardo
Medical students, barber, surge-ons, anatomists and doctors who wished to study the human body in depth in that era still had a large stigma attached to them. As such, it was not easy for people like Leonardo, Vesalius, Malpighi, and others to get access to or even look at human anatomy. Consequently, many of the ana-tomical errors that Galen, an earlier anatomist made were still being taught to doctors and anatomists right into the 17th cen-tury. Quite often, they had to content themselves with working from animal models and deducing human forms based on those carcasses. in the early sketches, Leonardo was very much influ-enced by the accepted wisdom about anatomy--showing, for ins-tance, a man's spine connecting to his penis, and the woman's spine going into the womb. Then in later works show-ing much more accurate pictures, although in some cases with inaccuracies based on extrapolation from animal dissections (animals presumably being easier to get hold of than people).

Studies of human musculature interested Leonardo
as an aid in the drawing of nude figures.
Leonardo da Vinci is well known for his varied interests, experments, and his endless curiosity. However, his anatomical studies are unlike his famous paintings, of which there is direct physical evidence, and his engineering plans, both architectural and mechanical, few of which historians believe were ever executed. The anatomical studies in his notebooks are particularly interesting because they represent explorations that he actually undertook but of which there is no remaining direct evidence.

Leonardo's drawing of the human heart.
Chalk this up to pure curiosity rather than a drawing aid.
There is an ongoing debate as to what extent Leonardo’s anatomical studies were meant to aid his painting. While it seems likely that many of his mycological studies had direct relationships with his depictions of humans and animals, it is difficult to imagine how learning about the internal organs (above) would have helped his art. Thus, studies such as the one he did of a pig’s heart are fascinating because they are examples of Leonardo’s thirst for knowledge simply for knowledge’s sake. Leonardo’s entries in his notebooks regarding his dissection of the human heart are themselves worth studying for two reasons. First, Leonardo pioneered the technique of drawing anatomical diagrams and second, there is a clear difference between what one sees during a dissection and what Leonardo sketched. Potential reasons for this dichotomy include simplification for clearer explanations of the dissection, insufficient drawing techniques to depict inner body parts accurately, and plain guesswork as to what was actually going on inside the heart.

Three hearts--Leonardo's drawing is amazingly accurate.
Anatomist now days use technologies like MRI scanners (Magnetic Resonance Scanners) to unlock the mysteries of the human body. Leonardo da Vinci, was equipped with nothing but a scalpel, pen, and paper. Even so, he was able to discover and record information that rivaled that of the MRI scanner. Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452. He is considered by many the greatest painter of all time. However, he is also known as one of the greatest anatomists of his time. When he died in 1519, he left behind thousands of pages of notes and drawings that lay undiscovered for hundreds of years. These notes include hundreds of surprisingly accurate anatomical sketches.

Leonardo experimented drawing the same muscles in
different poses and from varying angles.
Leonardo da Vinci first began his sketches in Milan, Italy during the year 1482, already a full fledged artist. He was very curious about the human body; he wanted to get inside and see how it worked. To accomplish this, da Vinci would acquire bodies from the church and dissect them. He analyzed the different muscle groups and tendons, trying to deduce what made what move and what worked where. He recorded these observations in his notebook. His sketches were done very meticulously and, to modern anatomists surprise, immensely accurate. sketches were done mostly with a special ink quill and gave much information that would not be discovered again until the 20th century, 500 years later. The sketches were done mostly with a special ink quill and gave much information that would not be discovered again until the 20th century, 500 years later.

The upper human body under stress.
After several years of studying and observing the human body, da Vinci put aside his anatomical studies for a decade while concerning himself with other matters. Matters such as: His famous painting The Last Supper and his work in military engineering. During the year 1504, his enthusiasm for anatomy grew again, and he continued his analysis. It is said, that towards the end of his life, anatomy took up a majority of his time (that and his most famous and mysterious project, The Mona Lisa); his main goal was to publish illustrated papers on the human body. Unfortunately, he was side tracked by other projects and never got the opportunity. Instead, he kept his findings in his notebooks hidden from the world for centuries.
The Unborn Child, 1504, Leonardo
People today are overwhelmed by the amount of information da Vinci was able to unravel about the human body so long ago. In fact, it is consistently debated on what the world would be like today if people understood the significance of his discoveries in the 16th century. The drawings spark the interests of scientists of all fields. The attention to detail and draftsmanship of the observations equal, if not surpass, modern anatomical textbooks. He even took into consideration the posture, drawing the models in ballet like positions to highlight certain parts of the body. He is known today as not only the greatest painter of all time, but also an anatomical genius. Making discoveries in the 16th century that would take the rest of the world 5 centuries longer to discover. Leonardo is sometimes arguably the greatest genius to have ever lived.

Leonardo saw the human head in layers.
 Here he depicts the scalp and the 
cerebral ventricles

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