Ultimate Guide To Leonardo Da Vinci The Anatomist


London eagerly awaits the opening of the largest ever exhibition of Leonardo Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings on view at The Queen’s Gallery this Friday, 4 May, 2012. Here, ArtLyst brings you the inside scoop on this remarkable exhibition.

Renaissance artist Leonardo Da Vinci is widely famous for his array of vocations as a painter, sculptor, architect, and engineer. The new exhibition in The Queen’s Gallery, Leonardo Da Vinci: Anatomist, examines an extensive collection of drawings that illuminate the man not purely as an extraordinary Renaissance artist, but as a scientist utterly fascinated by the inner workings of human body.

Reaching into the Royal Collection housed in the Windsor Castle Library since 1690, the gallery brings up 87 pages of intricately detailed drawings and text, 24 sides of which have been previously unexhibited. Page after page of browning parchment, some curiously painted blue, spread across the walls of three rooms or enclosed in two-sided cases, are carefully restored and displayed to reveal spectacular illustrations of Da Vinci’s discoveries.

Senior Curator of Paintings and Drawings Martin Clayton proudly states, “This exhibition aims to redress an understanding of [Da Vinci’s] work towards the end of his lifetime as primarily a scientist who did a bit of paining on the side.” Originally trained as an artist in Florence, the artist delves into the sciences upon his move to Milan in the 1480s. Methodically uncovering complex inner-structures of the body through dissections of animals and cadavers, Da Vinci’s work underlines anatomy as a new scientific field left wide open for exploration. Tedious and beautiful renderings and descriptions written in his trademarked ‘mirror-writing’ attest to a level of scientific understanding at least 400 years in advance of his time.

The three-roomed exhibition begins with an empty binding that once held nearly 600 drawings on this subject left unpublished at the time of Da Vinci’s death in 1519. Though preserved and bound by Pompeo Leoni in this leather casing by 1590, the drawings remained unpublished until 1900. In the back gallery, another grouping of drawings feature from a collection called ‘Manuscript A’, a concentrated activity of work dating from 1510-1511, after the Catholic Church allowed dissection of human bodies postmortem. These studies comes from a period when Da Vinci worked alongside Marcantonio della Torre, professor of anatomy at University of Pavia in Milan, where it he is said to have dissected an estimated 20 cadavers that winter.

The exquisite drawings included in this exhibition thoroughly describe and illustrate numerous physical phenomena. Indeed the artist’s continued and active investigation of the body results in dozens of studies on the same subject appearing throughout the gallery. Cross sections of internal organs, blood vessels, muscular and skeletal structures, the nervous system, even layers of the face that form complex human expression are examined in realistic, minute detail. Modern anatomical models are included next to images of drawings found throughout the exhibition to reveal their amazing similarity to our understandings of medicine today.

An emphasis on stages of reproduction and causes of death features prominently in the middle gallery. Here are illustrations developed from Da Vinci’s personal encounter with a centurion who passed without sign of complication, prompting the artist to dissect the deceased man’s body to find the cause of ‘so sweet a death’. As a result, his was the first documentation in medical history of ailments such as narrowing of the arteries and cirrhosis of the liver.

Behind Da Vinci’s scientific fascination was also an artistic engagement with anatomy. The concern for realism particular to the Renaissance style demanded accurate renderings of the ‘true’ human form, which included perfecting the correct proportions, musculature, gestures, etc. Da Vinci believed that artists must have a vast knowledge of the body in order to successfully achieve, and indeed improve upon, this contemporary realistic style. Visitors to the gallery witness a grasp of his three-dimensional consideration for example of the human scull, as you watch Da Vinci deconstruct bones and ligaments and render them in linear detail, shadow and contour, effectively bringing the corpse back to life on parchment. Thus, his scientific pursuits were also an effort to accumulate a number of studies to use as models for his paintings.

True to form, this exhibition in The Queen’s Gallery is professional, engaging, and highly informed by the curators and immaculately presented by their handlers. In addition, the Royal Collection has launched its first iPad app to coincide with the exhibition, where 268 of their preserved drawings are available for personal viewing, and each of whose text is capable of being reversed and translated into English.

Overall, this captivating exhibition illuminates Da Vinci’s incredible engagement with anatomic exploration, the drawings of which are not only remarkable for their exquisite beauty but also for their clarity of illustration. Viewers to the gallery are left to consider yet another profession of the artist Leonardo Da Vinci as a scientist whose extraordinary discoveries might have drastically changed the course of modern medicine had these drawings been published during his lifetime.

Words/ Photo: Sharon Strom © 2012 ArtLyst

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