Leonardo da Vinci: The Anatomist is an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace that documents da Vinci’s studies of human anatomy. The curator Martin Clayton has assembled this exhibition in order to demonstrate Leonardo’s brilliance as a skilled draughtsman and anatomist. It also provides a unique insight into da Vinci as a man. As a Leonardo da Vinci enthusiast I dived into the opportunity to learn more about him. The gallery itself was perfect for the artist: where better place to situate the magnificent Leonardo’s work but behind Buckingham Palace? The immediate sense of grandeur encapsulates the importance of da Vinci’s work, and even those who are not familiar with his output will find this an exhibition to remember.
Dissection of corpses and animal models allowed da Vinci to nurture his curiosity regarding the human form. Da Vinci was known for his depiction of facial expressions, capturing subtle reflections of light to illustrate the shape and tone of muscle. However he understood that in order to gain true understanding of how the body works, he must cut the skin to reveal what was beneath. Da Vinci’s dissections would have been disapproved of during a strictly religious period in Europe, so much of his work was hidden and remained sequestered until many years after his death. The Centenarian (1508-9) bookmarks the beginning of his anatomical treatise. This is a study of a man 100 years of age who died gracefully, claiming that he felt no ailment and permitted da Vinci to use his body for his investigations. Da Vinci approached every subject with respect. He wrote “I dissected him to find the cause of so sweet a death”, revealing that he did not see death as simply a means to supply bodies for dissection, but rather acknowledged its role in nature. Consequently his post-mortem examination led to the first ever identification of a narrowed coronary artery (arteriosclerosis) and cirrhosis of the liver.
If that was not enough, da Vinci’s meticulous attention to detail gave rise to truly beautiful drawings. This was not the only medical first that Leonardo accomplished: his creativity comparing animal anatomy to human anatomy led him to a study of embryology and, most significantly, an understanding of the heart as a pumping circulatory organ. His drawings include feature of valves, chambers, and coronary vessels, and he also used handmade models to illustrate the hydrodynamics of blood flow.
I, like many students of science, am used to learning from textbooks, making annotations and copying what we see from a PowerPoint presentation. For da Vinci, his drawings were a product of his own intuition and drive to pursue his curiosity about the human body. His astonishing findings far exceeded his time. They were only truly understood and accepted hundreds of years after his death, and to this day some of his observations are only just being confirmed by computer modelling and advanced scanning techniques.
This exhibition does not stop once you have left the gallery; Primal Pictures have cleverly integrated da Vinci’s work into a fantastic iPad application that allows you to see the exhibition in your own home. Primal Pictures have done very well to complement Leonardo’s work: what better way to introduce such an artist’s work to modern generations than by adding another dimension to marvel at? This impressive piece of software (available to download from itunes for £9.99) allows you to view the entire collection, with all the original annotations and the commentary from Martin Clayton. Da Vinci’s annotations on the drawings are in his cryptic ‘mirror-writing’ which to much disappointment for many, is not a form of code writing but merely an easier way for a left-handed artist to write without smudging his work. This not-so-mystical writing is in Old Italian and can be inspected with a mirror spyglass and translated on the iPad app with a click of a button. Next to each anatomical drawing is an integrated 3D model using MRI scans to match Leonardo’s illustration. This has been made interactive with Touch Press rotational technology allowing you to rotate the anatomical model and strip back different layers.
Even if you have no interest in either science or art, I urge anyone to go see this exhibition as it offers a chance to be amazed by a man who could smirk at the world for knowing so much. In this exhibition Leonardo da Vinci triumphs as a draughtsman, architect, engineer, inventor, scientist, and anatomist. He can finally be given the recognition as a pioneer in medical history that he so greatly deserved all those years ago.