The mechanics of man

Leonardo da Vinci’s formal training in the anatomy of the human body began with his apprenticeship with Andrea Del Verrocchio. As Leonardo developed and became a successful artist, he was given permission to dissect human corpses at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence and later at hospitals in Milan and Rome. Leonardo made over 200 pages of drawings and many pages of notes during this time towards a treatise on anatomy.

These insights into the workings of the human body that Leonardo could only obtain by dissecting scores of corpses and recording the results in exquisite drawings which will be displayed for the first time beside modern medical 3D films and scans and will show how close the Renaissance genius got to the truth of what lies under the skin.

Martin Clayton - curator of the exhibition, which will open in the Queen's Gallery at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh on 2 August to coincide with the Edinburgh festival and run on until  10November, believes Leonardo’s work on anatomy could have transformed medical knowledge; unfortunately the results remained in his notebooks until his death. All the drawings had been imported into England by the 17th century, bound into an album which was believed to have been purchased by Charles II and have been in the Royal Collection since circa 1690.

The exhibition will show how close to discovering the role of the beating heart in the circulation of the blood Leonard was almost a century before William Harvey worked it out. In 1508 Leonardo dissected a 100-year-old man and recorded accurately for the first time cirrhosis of the liver and narrowing of the arteries. In the winter of 1510 he covered his sheets of paper with multi-layered drawings from different angles of almost every bone in the human body including the first accurate depiction of the spine and many of the major muscle groups.

The works on display will include one of his more famous drawings, a baby in the womb; this will be displayed beside a 3D ultrasound scan of a foetus. His drawings of a hand, beginning with the bones, adding the deep muscles of the palm and then the layers of tendons, will be also be displayed, this time beside a film of a dissected hand in high definition 3D. His studies of the muscles of the shoulder and arm will also be compared with an animation of the same sequence, and a 3D film of a dissected shoulder which confirms with startling clarity how accurate his drawing was.

leonardo di vinci

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