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Between academia and the artist’s studio

Anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, unheard-of for many centuries, reveal his attempt to combine art and science

Sectioned skull,1489

The Royal Collection (c) 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II Sectioned skull,1489The Royal Collection (c) 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

from London

What lies behind the Mona Lisa’s smile? The answer would probably disappoint fans of secret codes. The smile is actually an attempt by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) to push back the boundaries, bringing art and science closer during the Renaissance. In addition to his work as a painter who wished to explore scientific issues, Leonardo wanted to create “visual science.” Anatomy was the field that he chose for his synthesis of art and science, as revealed in the exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: anatomist, being held in London. It displays more than two hundred Da Vinci drawings of the human body and will remain open until October 7. Another example of Da Vinci’s chosen field is the book A natureza, a razão e a ciência do homem: a questão dos estudos de anatomia de Leonardo da Vinci [The nature, reason and science of man: the issue of the anatomical works of Leonardo da Vinci], by historian Eduardo Kickhöfel, a professor at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp). The book includes the publication, with comments, of Leonardo’s “anatomical” series. The comments analyze the artist’s position as an anatomist in the history of natural philosophy, helping to describe how the words “art” and “science” were developed.

From 1490 and 1513, the painter dissected more than 30 bodies and accurately portrayed what he had seen. This was a true treatise which, had it been published, would have changed how anatomy was studied in Europe many years before the publication of De humanis corporis fabrica by Vesalius (1543). “There were no anatomical drawings in Leonardo’s time. Anatomy was always taught by using textbooks, such as the book by Mondino de Liuzzi, a fourteenth century anatomist. Mondino de Liuzzi’s book was read during demonstration classes held at universities. As Vesalius would do years later, Da Vinci advocated direct experience and created a style of painting that was so firmly based on the natural sciences that it became a science in itself. There is nothing in the Italian Renaissance that resembles his legacy,” says Eduardo. “Most of the structures he described would only be depicted centuries later. If he had published his treatise on anatomy, nowadays he would be considered one of history’s foremost scientists,” says historian Martin Clayton, curator of the exhibition on show at London’s Queen’s Gallery.

It is difficult not to be impressed by Da Vinci’s technique, as the drawings reproduced on these pages show. Clayton is especially impressed by the image of the baby in the uterus, an exception in this series of anatomic drawings, because Da Vinci used color. “The shade of red suggests the baby’s potential for life, even though this drawing is based on a dissected pregnant cow,” says the curator. Da Vinci came close to discovering circulation of the blood one century before Harvey did. And though he had learned Latin on his own, Leonardo had never felt comfortable with the language of contemporary scientific texts. He resented his status as an ‘inferior’ person in relation to university professors, even though he boasted that he was a ‘disciple of experience’,” Clayton says.

Body organs and and veins, c. 1485-90

The Royal Collection (c) 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II Body organs and and veins, c. 1485-90The Royal Collection (c) 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

This “shyness,” coupled with his perfectionism and difficulty to reconcile his observations with established beliefs, as well as some bad luck, prevented him from concluding his treatise. After his death, the manuscripts – by means of complicated transactions – ended up in the hands of King Charles II, in 1690, and were stored in the Royal Collection. They were only published in 1900. Therefore, Da Vinci’s power to affect the progress of anatomy was already disappearing. “Nonetheless, in his time, he strengthened the transition of a culture of memory and instruction to a culture of discovery and invention, which generated tension between authority and experience, an issue that was addressed in Vesalius, and which reached its peak with the condemnation of Galileo,” says Eduardo Kickhöfel. “There are many reasons why Leonardo never completed his project. But basically, the culture of that period didn’t accept the synthesis, as proposed by Da Vinci, between art – which produced something by using imperfect and corruptible material – and science – which demonstrated, by means of texts, the eternal and immaterial principles and causes. Leonardo’s ‘art-science’ with its drawings and texts was an effort to ‘produce-demonstrate’ something unthinkable for his contemporaries,” the researcher points out.

This entailed huge effort. “You can be held back by feeling like vomiting. The fear of living at night in the company of these dead men, dismembered and dissected, is terrible to bear,” Da Vinci wrote next to a drawing. He had the habit of writing in the third person, to explain the difficult task of dissecting bodies at a time when there was no refrigeration or other forms of preservation. However, there was no lack of bodies. Many corpses were delivered to artists, but physicians got only two corpses a year. “At the time, medical studies consisted of texts read in Latin in class by professors, who had no contact with corpses; bodies were dissected by barber-surgeons. The objective was not to correct tradition or conduct independent studies, but to confirm doctrines and theories,” says the researcher. Artists, on the other hand, were merely interested in the superficial description of the body to then produce drawings or sculptures. “It is hard to imagine that a medical school would ever have considered resorting to an artist’s work to illustrate a book on anatomy.” However, according to Aristotelian tradition, highbrow knowledge was not close to the senses: it was the vita contemplativa.

The values of the vita activa only became popular in the mid-fourteenth century; knowledge gradually began to focus on the life of man in a moving society. “Nevertheless, prejudice against manual activities remained and science was basically expressed through texts, though some physicians had begun to conduct dissections and to migrate to a culture of discovery and invention, as indicated by several books from the late fifteenth century, containing a few rough sketches of anatomic features,” Eduardo points out. Some overlap between the sciences and the arts – such as painting and sculpture – began to surface timidly. However, the objective was to explain to what extent science was inserted into the works thereby raising the artisan’s social status. In 1435, architect Leon Alberti, in his treatise De pictura, described an imaginary painter who was an educated man and created his works of art based on the knowledge of principles and causes: “First, the painter places each bone of the animal in its proper position, then its muscles and then its flesh,” he wrote. “He wanted reality, but not the description of parts of the body, because science and art were not united,” Eduardo points out.

Gastrointestinal tract, c. 1508

The Royal Collection (c) 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II Gastrointestinal tract, c. 1508The Royal Collection (c) 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti, who, like Leonardo, was an uneducated artisan, wrote the treatise I comentarii between 1447 and 1455. Here, he told his colleagues that they should learn anatomy; more specifically, that they should only learn about the bones and the muscles because “we do not need to know much about the other medical things.” “Ghiberti was aware of the limits of the tradition he was part of,” the researcher points out. Leonardo was aware as well, but decided to go beyond them. In 1489, Leonardo started his search for a skull. In spite of his impeccable sketch of the head, he attempted – by means of his drawings – to find what Aristotle referred to as “common sense;” the search for the exact position of the “soul” next to a “scientific” observation is a characteristic of the paradox of his relationship with anatomy, which resembles a mosaic of old and new concepts. “His project, dated from 1489, was to produce a catalogue. This project had already revealed the tensions that persecuted him: the tension between the textual tradition and anatomy dissections, the basis of true knowledge; the tension between repetitions of tradition and the fantasies of his time and discoveries, such as the mechanical conception of the human body, only arrived at in more recent times,” Eduardo analyzes. His other “sins” included the fact that he “admitted” to know about the circulation of the blood.

The existence of one-way valves was incompatible with ancient beliefs that the heart only pumped blood in and out of the ventricles, generating heat and the “vital spirit.” “He was unable to reconcile what he had observed with that which he believed was the truth, and thus came to a stalemate,” says the researcher. At the same time, after dissecting the corpse of a very old man, he wrote the first comments in the history of medicine on coronary occlusion and atherosclerosis. His detailed description of liver cirrhosis was only confirmed in the nineteenth century. However, his discoveries are less important than his conception of anatomy, which linked the university and the artist’s studio. He innovated in the sense that he showed anatomy-related topics as progressive preparation for “visual science” opposed to merely textual science.

“He didn’t illustrate anatomy-related topics; he conceived them through drawings, in line with the spirit of his training at the studio of Verrochio, within a semi-illiterate context, in which the common expression was visual and not oral. Leonardo identified art and science in a pioneering way and reflected on the mechanical conception of the body,” says Eduardo. Unlike Alberti, in whose opinion investigating what the body looked like was sufficient for a painter, Da Vinci believed that depictions of affection required knowledge of their causes. “Alberti’s painter strived to be eloquent and believable, while Leonardo’s painter strived to convey the truth in the sense of demonstrating topics of natural philosophy in line with the Aristotelian model, according to which feelings are the foundation of all cognition. He insisted on the need for experience.” The distinction between art and science was blurred.

“The expression ‘demonstrate’ is a common word in Leonardo’s studies on anatomy and its meaning is similar to ‘figure’, with products that were ‘drawings-concepts’ that depicted the vera notizia or intera cognizione of parts of the body, treated as mechanically as possible. They were the precursors of several ‘mechanicians’ of the sixteenth century, and pointed to the science of the seventeenth century,” explains the researcher. His art was a science.

The Royal Collection (c) 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II One of Da Vinci’s most touching drawings is this fetus in a uterus – it is one of the few drawings in color, used to show the potential of a new lifeThe Royal Collection (c) 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

However, there were problems in his methods. He would begin with an investigative experience, the contact of the senses with anatomic material. Through his investigative experience, he became knowledgeable about the forms and functions of body parts. To this end, he had the help of the texts he had read, or he may have had contact with anatomy experts (such as Marcantonio dela Torre, professor of anatomy at the University of Padua). This knowledge gave rise to a constructive experience, i.e., the re-depicting through drawing and writing, actions that were usually conducted far from the anatomic material. “Leonardo drew many bodies without ever having seen them. He believed that once a certain level of knowledge was achieved it was no longer necessary to have any contact with the bodies. Leonardo’s constructive experience was intended to be a science and the results were syntheses based on various private dissections and not copies of reality. This allowed for the existence of a ‘visual science,’ a code of knowledge based on drawings of concepts that could be acknowledged by their observer.”

“The main idea of his treatise was: for the anatomist, the visual experience is fundamental, but the creation of knowledge has to happen later, without direct contact with the anatomic material, in order to control the results of this creation,” says Eduardo. The researcher believes that Da Vinci drew many forms that lacked the visual experience, thus generating artificial or fictional results. “If he had seen the body parts and drawn them at the same time, he could have compared the dissection and the sketch, which would have made it possible to get a ‘better view.’ The distance between the two experiences – viewing and drawing – allowed him to synthesize body parts, thus creating ‘drawn concepts.’ On the other hand, this distance caused him to become vulnerable to erroneous theories, whether his own or tradition-related ones, usually a combination of both,” the author points out. “When he depicted his knowledge of anatomy, he generated ideas for new investigations and new demonstrations. Leonardo would probably not have achieved what he achieved if he had only read about and dissected bodies; his discoveries and demonstrative methods were refined throughout the years.”

There were no common interests between artists and anatomists from universities until the mid-sixteenth century. “If there had been, anatomic illustration would have been developed many years before Vesalius’ work.” There was no room for a form of knowledge based on natural sciences that had to be executed together with art; in other words, a science that produced appearances, even idealized ones, was a contradiction in its own terms,” the historian explains.

Leonardo dared to do what other artisans had not and attempted to bridge the distance between the arts and the sciences. By inserting knowledge of natural philosophy into painting, he changed the meaning of painting. Painting began to represent more knowledge, in a cultural context that did not allow the existence of a science whose results dispensed with discourse. “The technical objects which he worked on in the manner of an ‘engineer’ were models for him to think about the body as a set of levers and their drivers,” the researcher states. During the Renaissance, the idea of man as a mechanism was in line with the context of a culture in which machines were beginning to be part of daily life.

Ironically, last month Italian archaeologists found an altar that possibly held the remains of Lisa Gherardini, the alleged model of the Mona Lisa. The altar lies in the Convent of Saint Ursula, in Florence. Leonardo would have enjoyed seeing up close the bones that created history’s most famous smile.

The Project
The nature, reason and science of man (nº 2012/01124-2); Modality Research Grant; Coordinator Eduardo Kickhofel – Unifesp; Investment R$ 16,000.00 (FAPESP)