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‘Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist’ at the Queen’s Gallery has been organised with a number of things in mind. Firstly as an indirect partnership with the stupendously popular Leonardo exhibition that came to town at the back end of last year. Secondly to coincide with a not underpublicised athletic event, taking place at the end of July. The event of course bringing with it rich, oversees crowds who, after ticking off Buckingham Palace, can nip round the corner to Her Madge’s very own Gallery. And Thirdly, it is of course, that very same lady’s Diamond Jubilee, bringing with it rich, oversees crowds who, after seeing Buckingham Palace, well, you get the idea.

Regardless of the timing, this is by no means a lightweight effort feeding off circumstance and the success of the National Gallery show. It’s the largest exhibition of Leonardo’s anatomical studies ever assembled and it has been meticulously put together. Accompanying the 87 studies are detailed descriptions not just from curator Martin Clayton but also from a team of scientists headed by Ron Philo, a senior Professor from the University of Texas Health Science Center and zoologists from various Natural History museums. This diverse team allows us to chart the progression of Leonardo’s anatomical understanding and highlights the truly significant nature of his discoveries.

From his death in France, 1519, at the age of 67 until as recently as the early twentieth century, the man born in Vinci near Florence was known to have dabbled in the sciences but was principally regarded as an artist. Not until an examination of thousands of pages of his notebooks have we come to understand that, were they published, Leonardo’s anatomical discoveries would have had as profound an influence on the history of science as his painting, sculpture and architecture did on the history of art.

Over a 25-year period he documented most of the major muscle groups and every single bone in the human body with exception of those of the skull. His illustrations are accompanied by over 13,000 words of text in his famous mirror writing. Not because he intended to be secretive about his research as some think; mirror writing is not hard to decipher, but because he was left-handed and it was a habit he picked-up which enabled him to write without smudging the ink.

The writing is full of personal memos, for example, in his notes on The Throat and the Muscles of the Leg he writes, “break the jaw from the side so that you can see the uvula in its position”. But it also contains many instructions for would-be viewers of his work, and as early as 1489 he wrote a projected outline for his treatise, stating that it should begin with conception and pregnancy, then birth and life through to old age. His initial driver was to better understand the perceived conditions of man and to align religious understanding with scientific proof.

One of the early drawings in the show is his Hemisection of a Man and a Woman in the Act of Coition.

The hemisection was an unprecedented illustrative technique at this point; something he picked up from drawing architectural ground plans. Similarly, from engineering he used the exploded diagram technique, normally showing the way mechanic devices should be constructed, but here, at the bottom of the page, what he thought the inside of the penis looked like.

What the main drawing depicts is Leonardo’s belief based on the views of scientists and philosophers of the past rather than strictly what he witnessed. As far as we know, he hadn’t dissected a human at this point in his career. Before he had access to human bodies, he had to make do with various animals including monkeys, bears, horses and birds. Hence if he’d actually chopped a chopper in two, he’d have noticed that there is only one tube.

This drawing depicts the belief held at the time that three components from the male are used in conception. An ‘animal’ element which comes from the brain, down the spinal chord and meets with the penis; from the heart stems the ‘spiritual’ element, the tube from which follows a similar path; and lastly the ‘material’ element, which comes from the balls.

From the female, it is harder to discern but we can see that something was meant to come down through the spine into the womb, presumably similar to the ‘animal’ element of the man, and then the channel linking the womb to the breast that was thought to be involved in the milk conversion process.

You can treat this drawing, early in his anatomical career, as one of his hypotheses, based entirely on his imagination and on existing scientific texts before starting his own treatise. It’s fascinating then to monitor his progression towards making the biggest discoveries of his life, in the space of the three rooms of the gallery.

In the 1490s his anatomical work was put on hold, possibly due to financial circumstances (it was a hobby after all), and possibly his frustration at being unable to link his religious understanding with his scientific findings. So, as happened frequently throughout Leonardo’s career, when frustration set in he moved on to something else. At this point the Sforzas, his patrons in Milan, called upon him to undertake a number of projects, most notably, the mural of the Last Supper in 1494.

He returned to his anatomical studies over ten years later, seemingly intent on dealing purely with the physical aspects of the body and its contents, rather than attempting to assimilate any religious meaning. At some point in the early 1500s, crucially, he begins to gain access to human bodies for dissection.

In 1507-8 in his notebook, Leonardo describes a bizarre event in Florence where he met an old man in hospital, who moments before death told him, “that he was over a hundred years old, and that he felt nothing wrong with his body other than weakness.” Then after the centenarian’s death moments later, Leonardo writes with alarming detachment, “And then I dissected him…”

In his notes on the post-mortem he provides the first details of coronary vascular occlusion (you can tell I’ve had help from the medical descriptions here) and cirrhosis of the liver in medical history. Later in his notes he also contrasts the arteries and veins of the old man to those of a two year old he had dissected previously.

His later cardiovascular studies disproved the centuries-old belief firstly that the heart, not the liver, was the centre of the vascular system and he discovered that the lungs do not pump air into the heart, although he still held onto the common view that the lungs’ primary function was to cool the blood.

One of his greatest discoveries was achieved by using a material he would have known from creating bronze sculpture. He passed molten wax into an ox’s heart to define its shape and was able to deduce that the valves of the heart attained perfect closure – a discovery not fully confirmed until centuries later.

Over five years, probably in partnership with Marcantonio della Torre, a leading medical figure at the University of Pavia, Leonardo dissected more than 30 bodies, meticulously noting and drawing as he carried out such a grim task. In a time of manual tools and no preserving agents, the mess and stench of rotting corpses must have been close to unbearable, yet he was able to carry out his work with the seeming detachment we witnessed earlier. Only once does he mention the reality of being an early 16th Century anatomist, in a note that conceivably was to be served as a conclusion to his treatise:

Though you may have a love for such things, you will perhaps be impeded by your stomach; and if this does not impede you, you will perhaps be impeded by the fear of living through the night hours in the company of flayed and quartered corpses. And if this does not impede you, perhaps you will lack the good draughtsmanship which such a depiction requires… Whether all these things were found in me or not, the 120 books composed by me will give the verdict… In these I have been impeded neither by avarice nor negligence but only by time. Farewell.

He wrote in another note, “this winter of 1510 I believe I shall finish all of this anatomy”. But he couldn’t have foreseen the death of his collaborator Marcantonio due to the plague, and this event appears to have hindered the completion of his treatise.

In his latter years he took his notes and drawings with him wherever he went; to Rome where he spent a frustrating few years, his artistic output restricted by his patrons. Then he went on to his final resting place, the French court of Francis I in the Loire valley. At the time of his death in 1519 the notebooks passed on to his young assistant, Francesco Melzi, who never thought of them to be of enough consequence to publish. So they passed hands several times and following a complex and uncertain pattern of events in 1690 they were recorded in London in the collection of William III and Mary II.

His immense discoveries lay dormant for 400 years, only to be of little medical consequence when they were finally revealed to the public. Of course, it affects how we understand the great Leonardo, and we can only speculate as to the different course medical history would have taken had his works been published in his time.

By Edward Lines

Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist is on at the Queen’s Gallery until 7th October 2012

Thank you very much to Annie-Lou Balme for sneaking me into the private viewing.