The fetus in the womb, 1511 (image from Leonardo da Vinci, Anatomist)
Something amazingly rare is happening right now in the United Kingdom. It is related to the monarchy and also concerns the curious science of pregnancy, but it has nothing to do with the royal baby. Can you guess? The Royal Library at Windsor Castle is lending one of its most precious treasures to be exhibited in the Edinburgh Queen’s Gallery: the anatomical works of Leonardo da Vinci.
Needless to say that this exhibition, called Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man, is worth a field trip even if you don’t live in Scotland, since the possibility of seeing so many original documents of the Renaissance’s greatest genius is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The Cranium Sectioned (image from Leonardo da Vinci, Anatomist)
Da Vinci’s interest in the body’s structure sparked around 1480 through studies of human craniums and a hypothesis based on animal dissection. At the time, the church still had an ambiguous relationship with dissection and it took almost a decade for da Vinci to have access to human material. A pioneer in the observation and theory of anatomy, da Vinci soon established himself as an expert in muscular topography, vascular systems, and bone structures, unveiling the mechanics of our human movement.
His success as a visual artist allowed him to participate in dissections in the Hospital Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, and enabled him to collaborate with anatomy professor Marcantonio della Torre in the University of Pavia, in Milan. During this period, he shifted from da Vinci the painter to a more scientific role. His studies on embryology — analyzing the process of life from conception to in utero development — has a bizarre beauty oscillating between lucidity toward the machine we come from, as well as an enigmatic humanity.
The muscles of the shoulder, arm, and neck, 1510-15 (image from Leonardo da Vinci, Anatomist)
Written in his distinctive mirror script, da Vinci’s anatomical manuscripts were meant to be published and his discoveries spread over the Old Continent, but the difficulty of transcription of his backwards handwriting rendered the task too complex. It is said that artists Vasari or Dürer accessed his original treaties, but the detailed drawings of da Vinci stayed out of reach of the public for many generations. Nothing is really sure about how the anatomical works ended up in the British Royal Collection, but the large bound manuscript might have been acquired by Charles II around the 1690, and then was almost unknown until the 1900s.
The vascular system and principal organs of a woman, 1509-10 (image from Leonardo da Vinci, Anatomist)
Curated by Martin Clayton, the Queen’s Gallery exhibition proposes an overview of da Vinci’s meticulous methodology, blurring constantly the limits between art and science, but also celebrating its scientific accuracy by juxtaposing contemporary medical imagery with da Vinci’s perfectly proportioned drawings. Ahead of their time, da Vinci’s anatomical drawings explore the human body in a very odd way: behind their technical virtuosity, they exist as a tangible reminder of the solitary quest of a visionary whose curiosity for nature and its mechanics made him one of the incontestable geniuses of all time.
The heart and coronary vessels, 1511-13 (image from Leonardo da Vinci, Anatomist)
The exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man will be on view from August 2 to November 10 at the Queen’s Gallery in the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh.