November 28, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist
The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace
04 May 2012 to 07 October 2012

I’ve already waxed lyrical about how, despite his admittedly substantial contribution to art history, I think Leonardo da Vinci was primarily a scientist. After my visit this weekend to new exhibition ‘Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist’, I’d like to add an epilogue. Leonardo da Vinci was also an astonishingly talented science communicator.

Currently on display at the Queen’s Gallery, Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist is a collection of anatomical studies which remained hidden and unpublished in notebooks for four hundred years after the artist’s death. Covering da Vinci’s two main periods of study in the 1480s and 1510, the extensive works along with the notebook that originally bound them are justifiably held aloft as priceless examples of a practitioner far ahead of his time. Had the studies been published at the time of their creation, da Vinci would be recognised as one of the greatest anatomists of all time.

Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical interests went far beyond what was useful for an artist. Studying organisms as diverse as birds, cows and horses, as well as human cadavers when he could access them, his drawings and lengthy descriptions (written in his trademark back-to-front handwriting) show a draughtsman utilising skills from architecture and engineering to produce a systematic study of the inner workings of the body. As one of the panels reads: “artistic beauty and anatomical accuracy are in perfect balance.”

It is this facet of the thoughtfully laid out exhibition that makes it awe-inspiring and thought-provoking for the casual visitor, medical student, and art-history scholar alike. Aside from the unique experience of being separated from an original artwork by just a thin pane of glass, the exhibition also raises an important point: that while other anatomical models may technically be more precise than da Vinci’s early studies (and some of da Vinci’s are spot on by modern standards), there is always an element of representation in illustration. Stylisation is crucial for comprehension.

From bizarre theories about conception – the idea that the female spine splits and passes into the uterus – to sophisticated dissections of the human skull, the exhibition exerts its breath-taking power through the power of visualising the unseen. Da Vinci takes a study of the head, neck and shoulders – three sequential drawings rotated and viewed from different elevations – and creates a cinematic experience paralleled today in 3D anatomy teaching. From a deceptively simple record of what he saw, da Vinci has communicated the form and function of the human body.

The literal heart of the exhibition is a scarlet room chronicling the final years of da Vinci’s anatomical work. Driven to frustration by his work on the flow of blood through the aorta, da Vinci laid down his tools and closed a notebook that would not be released to the public until many years after his death six years later. I recommend you get under the skin of da Vinci’s staggeringly beautiful depictions before word spreads.

More > Read 5pm Girl‘s take on why Leonardo was a scientist first and artist second.