The Anatomist and the Artist


The intertwining of art and science cannot be eluded; the one cannot exist without the other. One of the most obvious examples of this unbreakable bond is the relationship between visual arts and anatomy, encompassing illustration of the body for anatomists and the study of anatomy by artists.

Anatomical illustration is fundamentally important to the teaching and study of anatomy, and at least since the Renaissance, artists have recognized the importance of anatomical knowledge for their own creative work. Naturally, the basis of anatomy, is and has always been, dissection of human corpses, which though practiced by the ancient Greeks, did not become part of accepted medical research until the 16th century.

During the Middle Ages—a time when the vast majority of ordinary people were uneducated and superstitious—anatomy was based on a sprinkling of facts derived from Greek sources and a large amount of guesswork. The internal workings of the body were not explained by scientific theories, but by the influence of supernatural forces, spirits, and demons. The picture of a “Zodiac Man”, taken from a 14th century manuscript, demonstrates how doctors thought that the stars and the planets influenced the body.

The Renaissance may be best known for its artworks, which certainly shaped the course of art history; yet, during this formative period in art history, one primary source of inspiration for artists was actually anatomical sciences. The population was becoming wealthier; the rise in prosperity generated an interest in education, supported the flourishing of the arts, and promoted scientific discoveries and new inventions. Traditional theories were challenged and doctors looked for a better understanding of the workings of the body; by the early 1500s, dissections were, thus, increasingly being carried out in medical universities around Europe.

Andreas Vesalius, born in Brussels in 1514, studied medicine in Paris where he became skilled in dissection. In 1537, he joined Padua University where he became Professor of Surgery, and in 1543, he published On the Fabric of the Human Body, which would change the medical view of the human structure.

Vesalius’ work was important because it challenged existing thinking. Before the Renaissance, medical knowledge was based on the writings of Galen, an ancient Greek physician who wrote over sixty works on medical practice that were the accepted textbooks on medicine during Roman times. Galen’s ideas and methods, such as observing and recording medical conditions, were useful; however, he made many mistakes. Though he dissected human bodies, many of his ideas on human anatomy were based on the dissections of various animals, leading to many errors in his writings on the functions of the body.

Vesalius wanted to see for himself how the anatomy of a human body worked from the inside. In 1539, he was given access to the bodies of executed criminals by a local judge and began to regularly perform dissections, many of them as public demonstrations. Though Vesalius still included some inaccuracies in his anatomical work, he corrected many of Galen’s mistakes; more importantly, he put anatomy at the forefront of medical study. His work typified Renaissance thinking; he looked back to classical modes of learning, as well as ahead to the developing scientific method, using experiment, observation, and physical confirmation to challenge and correct mistaken beliefs and ideas that were based on authority or tradition rather than evidence.

On the Fabric of the Human Body was aimed at a wide audience; it was used by medical students, but was also intended for people who attended the public dissections conducted by Vesalius. The pictures in the book provided the audience with a visual guide; in order to appeal to as many people as possible, the book was not only highly detailed, it was brilliantly illustrated, surpassing any anatomical work produced before. This would not have been possible to perform without the many advances that had been made during the Renaissance.

Geography played a part in Vesalius’s success; Padua is near Venice, a wealthy coastal trading center. The wealthy merchants of Venice spent their money on education and luxuries; they created a ready market for Vesalius’s fascinating work. The wealth and beauty of Venice also attracted a host of talented artists to the city; Vesalius was easily able to recruit the best artists—most notably Titian—from local studios to illustrate his book. Just as importantly, the recent invention of the printing press meant that Vesalius’s book could be produced in large numbers, while the improvement in printing techniques made it possible to include the brilliant illustrations.

Anatomy was particularly important in Italy during the Renaissance, not only for educational purposes, but also because of the great number of leading artists who worked there. Employed by wealthy Italians to decorate their houses with paintings and sculpture, they desired to recreate the lifelike images produced a thousand years earlier by the Greeks and the Romans.

The relationship between artists and physicians during the Renaissance was symbiotic. Not only did physicians contract artists to draw illustrations for their written works, artists, interested in exacting the human form in their art, observed physicians at work to learn the layers of muscle and bone structures that formed certain parts of the body. Some artists even forged partnerships with specific physicians, in which the physicians would allow the artists to assist in dissections in exchange for anatomical drawings and illustrations.

Some of the best artists even conducted their own anatomical studies, making new discoveries and expanding the field. While most artists limited their investigations to the surface of the body and observed live subjects, some went so far as to peel back successive layers of muscle, tendons, and bones, off corpses in order to gain a better idea of how to portray the human body in their art. Da Vinci, it is said, conducted the first correct anatomical study of a human fetus.

We tend to think of Leonardo da Vinci as a painter, even though he probably produced no more than twenty paintings before his death in 1519. Yet, for long periods of his career of nearly half a century, he was engrossed in all sorts of pursuits, from stargazing and designing ingenious weaponry, to overseeing a complex system of canals for Ludovico Maria Sforza, the ruling Duke of Milan. During the course of his life, Leonardo filled thousands of pages of manuscript with diagrams and text, probing almost every conceivable topic.

One area of scientific endeavor piqued Leonardo’s curiosity arguably more than any other: human anatomy. Leonardo’s early anatomical studies dealt mainly with the skeleton and muscles; from observing the static structure of the body, he proceeded to study the role of individual parts of the body in mechanical activity, which led him finally to study the internal organs.

His findings from these studies were recorded in the famous anatomical drawings, which are among the most significant achievements of the Renaissance. They are based on a connection between natural and abstract representation; representing parts of the body in transparent layers that afford an “insight” into the organ by using sections in perspective, reproducing muscles as “strings”, indicating hidden parts by dotted lines, and devising a hatching system.

Leonardo’s interest in anatomy began when he was working for Ludovico in Milan, when he began his book entitled On the Human Figure. However, after completing a sequence of stunning drawings of a skull, his studies paused, probably because he lacked access to corpses that he could dissect. Around two decades later, he returned to his notebook, now known as the Anatomical Manuscript B, where he made a number of pen-and-ink drawings, recording his observations while dissecting an old man who had died in a hospital in Florence in Winter 1507/08.

In the years that followed, Leonardo concentrated on human anatomy more systematically than ever before. In Winter 1510/11, Leonardo compiled a series of 18, mostly double-sided sheets, exploding with more than 240 individual drawings and over 13,000 words of notes. Now known as the Anatomical Manuscript A, these sheets are full of lucid insights into the functioning anatomy of the human body.

Leonardo made many important discoveries; he produced the first accurate depiction of the human spine, while his notes documenting his dissection of the Florentine centenarian contain the earliest known description of cirrhosis of the liver. Yet, arguably Leonardo’s most brilliant scientific insights occurred when the great polymath fled political turmoil in Milan and took shelter in the family villa of his assistant Francesco Melzi, where he became obsessed with understanding the structure of the heart.

Heart surgeon Francis Wells, who works at Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, and has published The Heart of Leonardo, recalls coming across Leonardo’s studies for the first time as a medical student: “I remember thinking that they were far better than anything we had in modern textbooks of anatomy,” he says. “They were beautiful, accurate, absorbing, and there was liveliness to them that you just do not find in modern anatomical drawings”.

During his investigations, Leonardo discovered several extraordinary things about the heart: “The heart was believed to be a two-chambered structure,” Wells explains; “but, Leonardo firmly stated that the heart has four chambers. Moreover, he discovered that the atria or filling chambers contract together while the pumping chambers or ventricles are relaxing, and vice versa”.

Leonardo also observed the heart’s rotational movement: “The heart empties itself with a twisting motion,” says Wells; “it wrings itself out, a bit like the wringing out of a towel. In heart failure it loses this twist”. According to Wells, Leonardo did not fully understand the function of cardiac twist; “but, everything starts somewhere,” he says. “It was a correct start along the road to understanding cardiac twist, which is now one of the hottest topics in understanding heart failure.”

Perhaps most impressive of all were Leonardo’s observations about the aortic valve. Intrigued by the way opens and closes to ensure blood flows in one direction, he set about constructing a model by filling a bovine heart with wax, then recreating the structure in glass. By pumping a mixture of grass seeds suspended in water through it, he observed little vortices as the seeds swirled around in the widening at the root of the aorta; as a result, he correctly posited that these vortices helped close the aortic valve.

Yet, because he never published his far-sighted research, this remained unknown for centuries. “This was not understood until the 20th century” says Wells, “when it was shown most beautifully in Nature in 1968 by two engineers in Oxford; there was only reference to Leonardo da Vinci”.

“There were lots of investigative anatomists around at the time, and there were lots of artists who were interested in anatomy,” says Martin Clayton, head of prints and drawings in the Royal Collection, and the curator of the Edinburgh exhibition, “but Leonardo pushed these two things further than anybody else. He was the supreme example of an anatomist who could also draw, or of an artist who was also a very skilled dissector. It was the union of these two skills in a single figure that made Leonardo unique”.

In the centuries after Leonardo’s death in 1519, the approximately 6,500 surviving sheets from his voluminous notebooks were dispersed. By 1690, nearly all of his anatomical studies were held in the Royal Collection, where they languished, unappreciated and unpublished, until end–19th century. As a result, Leonardo’s stupendous anatomical discoveries had no impact whatsoever on the history of science.

Throughout his life, Leonardo da Vinci remained a researcher of visual observation. It is precisely through this observation—and his own genius—that he developed a unique “theory of knowledge” in which art and science form a synthesis. His intellectual force, inherent in every one of his creations, is a force that continues to spark scholarly interest today. Whether the subject is his life, his ideas, or his artistic legacy, Leonardo’s influence shows little sign of fading.

*Published in SCIplanet printed magazine, Summer 2017 Issue.


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