Tuesday 19 February 2013

Leo Meets Leo at the Palace

On one of several trips with my brother to London last year I went to Buckingham Palace to see the exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist”. My middle name is Leonard (a family name and no indication that I was named after da Vinci), and even though I worked in an art gallery for 7 years this was my first encounter with actual works by Leonardo.

The exhibition brought together the largest number of Leonardo’s anatomical drawings ever displayed in one place. My brother and I were there for nearly 2 hours and still didn’t see all of them properly.

The drawing are all part of the Royal Collection and came from Leonardo’s studios via his student Francesco Melzi, sculptor Pompeo Leoni, and the Earl of Arundel. The exhibition’s curator, Martin Clayton, said that the drawings are some of the best, if not the best, depictions of the human body that have ever been produced. Wandering round the exhibition I was certainly impressed by the almost pathologically accurate way that Leonardo was looking at parts of the human body.

First and foremost Leonardo was an artist, and his detailed drawings were to aid him in his art. Like all good artists of his day he needed a good knowledge of human anatomy to paint realistic looking people. He also had an enquiring mind, a desire for knowledge which drove him on. Leonardo also hoped that all his anatomical drawings would be published in his lifetime, something which didn’t actually happen until the late 1800s.

Leonardo started thinking about this anatomical treatise in Milan in 1489. From the start he wanted it to be something more than a reference guide for artists, with examples of laughing, crying and shouting faces. But he also wanted to depict the whole human life cycle, from conception to death.

At first there were few human bodies for Leonardo to dissect. He was only allowed to use the occasional body of an executed criminal – other bodies were too difficult to obtain without grave robbing. A lot of his drawings were of parts of animals instead. However, he did manage to get hold of a human leg and a skull from somewhere. The skull in particular was a subject of intense scrutiny as Leonardo tried to find where a man’s soul was located in the brain.

Leonardo got a bit disillusioned with his anatomical work because of the difficulty in obtaining bodies. So he gave it up for 15 years and didn’t start again until he moved to Florence. There he began to leave the first detailed visual records of heart disease and cirrhosis of the liver.

In 1510 he went to the University of Pavia’s medical school and was able to dissect about 20 cadavers. His aim to produce an illustrated anatomical treatise looked like it might be completed. Unfortunately, the city was invaded and his enthusiasm for the subject faded again in the chaos. He didn’t stop work completely. He dissected animal parts and looked at blood circulation, but even then his enthusiasm didn’t last.

Leonardo never did finish his treatise. He tried to add to it from time to time but probably felt it was a never-ending project that it was never going to be finished. His drawings show what a perfectionist he was. Perhaps its just as well it wasn’t finished. It would have been a best-seller, and so well known that the drawings may not have had the same value we put on them today.

But, then again, did the non-publication of these drawings in Leonardo’s lifetime rob doctors, surgeons and medics vital reference guides that would not otherwise appear until several hundred years after his death? Would we know more about the human body today and be more advance in medicine than we actually are?

It doesn’t really matter. Leonardo’s anatomical drawings are awe-inspiring. I was amazed at the fine detail and tiny writing. And if the drawings had been published in the 16th century I don’t think the exhibition would have pulled such a large crowd. I only wish I could have gone back for a second look.

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