The Human Body

Leonardo da Vinci was a man who could appreciate a great body. During his lifetime, the field of medicine was becoming more important, and artists such as Leonardo were increasingly fascinated with drawing the human body accurately. In Leonardo's case, he went a step further to figure out how the bodily systems beneath the surface worked.

Leonardo's early paintings were studies in a new humanistic style of art, and he was far ahead of his contemporaries in this regard. The best example is his Vitruvian Man drawing of 1490. It broke barriers because it was one of the first accurate expressions of the relationship between the human form and geometrical proportions. He developed and refined the techniques of sfumato and chiaroscuro specifically to deal with the new approach to realism. Leonardo gradually stood further and further apart from the field; after all, how many artists invent their own techniques to solve a problem?

Many of Leonardo's other sketches define human anatomy with an unprecedented degree of detail. His drawings of the human ribcage, spine, and coccyx are highly accurate. He also rendered sketches of nudes in various positions, indicating a significant understanding of how the human form worked in motion.

Leonardo never stopped trying to learn more about the human body. You might even call him art's first forensic scientist. Not content just to draw the body as he saw it from the outside, he strove to understand the human form from the inside. How far would he go to increase this understanding? Farther than was acceptable or even legal at that time. He cut up cadavers, and studied organs as well as skeletal substructures—all in an effort to draw and paint more accurately. Circulation and musculature systems intrigued him for the same reason. But what mattered most to Leonardo was the quality of his work, and he was willing to get his hands dirty—literally—to ensure that quality.

Studying the Human Form

Leonardo's interest in anatomy ran deep, both literally and figuratively. He spent years researching the intricacies of how our bodies function. He could have written the first version of Gray's Anatomy. In 1489, he started work on a notebook focused specifically on anatomy. He studied all parts ofthe body, especially the brain and eyes. He sketched skulls in cross-section, showing both an amazing understanding of the visible and an interpretive ability to figure out the unknown. His drawings demonstrate a clear relationship between eyes, nose, teeth, jaw, and vertebrae. To make things even more clear, Leonardo detailed most of his anatomical sketches with notes and measurements—almost like an architect doing construction documents.

Leonardo also paid particular attention to musculature, as we can see in several of his sketches. Some of his earlier anatomical drawings show extremely muscular men (perhaps indicating his own preferences!), while later sketches focus more on anatomical detail. A series of shoulder drawings from 1511 show tremendous schematic detail on the layering of bodies, depicting skin, bone, muscle, and surrounding tissue as a complex web. Leonardo's paintings from twenty years earlier show this same fascination with the muscle groups, which create sculpted definition.

His interest in the head likely resulted from his studies of perspective drawing. He understood that people see things in different ways depending on their relative positions; his study of the human eye was a natural extension of his work in perspective drawing. One of Leonardo's sketches from 1489 compares the human head to an onion, perhaps referring to the layers of complexity.

The comparison of a head to an onion may seem wild to us today. However, during the Renaissance, medics often used “natural” remedies for various ailments. For instance, placing a roasted onion in the exterior ear was a common medieval treatment for an ear infection. Leonardo's comparison between a head and an onion wasn't so outlandish in his day.

Examining Life Through Death

Disease ran rampant during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Plagues were common, including community bouts of typhoid, diphtheria, and smallpox. Vaccines for these diseases wouldn't begin to bedeveloped for hundreds of years. Although medical care was available during the medieval and Renaissance years, people with more money probably received better treatment. Death was just a fact of life in the Renaissance, and Leonardo was one of the pioneers who realized that to figure out how the body worked in life, he could examine it in death.

Did Leonardo invent the autopsy?

No, but he was one of the pioneers of corpse dissection. As the doctors of the day were only starting to realize, the best way to truly learn about the inner workings of the human body was, simply, to take a look inside.

In order to study musculature and bone structures in the arms, legs, and other body parts, Leonardo dissected many corpses in the early 1500s. His subjects seem to have included a homeless woman who had been about nine months pregnant at the time of her death. One of his sketches shows a human fetus, complete inside a woman's body with placenta and uterus. Leonardo's drawings describe a curled fetus and umbilical cord as they lie inside the womb. However, in his drawings the unborn baby is a highly muscular infant. From this error, we can see that his factual knowledge was probably minimal.

Despite some mistakes, Leonardo was one of the first to draw the female reproductive system accurately, and his drawings are certainly the most detailed to come from the Renaissance period. He also drew detailed sketches of other systems and organs, including the human heart. He even made three-dimensional models of human body parts based on his studies of cadavers.

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