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Leonardo - Man and Myth

23 July 2012 Kathryn Havelock

The work of Leonardo da Vinci and his work is famous worldwide and the current exhibition at The Queen's Gallery explores the drawings and sketches of Leonardo as an anatomist. Kathryn Havelock discovers Leonardo, the man, the myth.

Leonardo.

The name alone conjures an image of the quintessential renaissance artist, the humanist ideal and the archetypal genius. The name on the lips of the Mona Lisa. The divine proportion of the Vitruvian Man. He whom even when ranked amongst the greatest names in art history in Vasari’s Lives of the Artists was deemed ‘marvellously endowed by Heaven with beauty, grace and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind’. As the myth of the artist goes, only Michelangelo ranks close in levels of universal adoration.  

Leonardo. The polymath master of engineering, science, art, mathematics, invention, architecture, art and sculpture, primarily strove to comprehend and unravel complex mechanisms – how the world worked in every sense be it hydrodynamics, optics, proportion, the forces of gravity, anatomy or the built environment.

Leonardo’s quest to understand musculature of the body in order to better represent the human form in art is widely known, and was by no means unusual during the Italian Renaissance. What is slightly lesser known however, are Leonardo’s researches into the workings of the human body on a far deeper level, it’s mechanisms, systems and structures that make up the whole. His explorations covered the reproductive and digestive systems, circulatory systems and arterial pathways together with cranial anatomy, methods of speech, sight and perception.

What seems evident from his sketches however is that he did not see the plethora of subjects within his grasp as distinct and separate from each other – one sketch detailing the working of a bird’s wing similarly shows an architectural sketch on the same paper. Others show muscles and bones of man compared with those of a horse, or a cross-section of the cranium with a cross-section of an onion on the same page. Evidently Leonardo saw connections between organic structures, identifying universal concepts and natural mechanisms whose underlying architecture could be applied to the built environment.

Despite being the genius that he was acknowledged as in his time, and the universal genius he is recognised as today, Leonardo got things wrong. His genius was not without the occasional flaw. In his lifetime he dissected over 30 human bodies, one supposedly over 100 years old, alongside dogs, cows, bears, oxen and pigs. Seeing these creatures, he assumed identical systems across species which actually have evolved their own distinct physiology.

He failed to comprehend the system of blood circulation through the body, and the workings of the hearts valves. He incorrectly believed the pregnant womb to be a perfect circle, and saw echoes of flowers and nuts in the structure of the uterus. His early sketches of the brain shows his belief in the ‘senso commune’ – the notion that deep inside the brain resided three bulbous entities responsible for processing sensory information, comprehension and memory. In later drawings, these ventricles have disappeared to show a more accurate representation of the skull and cranium. Thankfully his beliefs changed over time – as with so many other aspects of his lifelong efforts, his ideas evolved and matured, and despite the limitations of science in his time, his drawings represent the forefront of medical and anatomical knowledge at the time, yet outside the field of medicine.

The great shame of his works is that being unpublished at the time of his death, his papers and sketches languished. Left undiscovered, medical understanding of anatomy progressed at a far slower rate than had his research been made public. Some of his theories regarding the workings of the human body were not confirmed until the 20th century, over four hundred years after his death. Had his works been published before the actual date of 1900, his name would be alongside those of Galen, Fleming, Pasteur, Nightingale and Lister as a giant of medical history.

As it is, he will have to rest forever as the man, the myth, the artist and the legend, that is simply, Leonardo.

 

Leonardo Da Vinci: Anatomist is showing at The Queen's Gallery until 7 October 2012.

Image credit: The Royal Collection © 2012 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

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