The Italian Renaissance: How Art Impacted Anatomy

  • Aug 09, 2018
  • By Andrew Sheldon

The Italian Renaissance: How Art Impacted Anatomy

By: Dr. Manisha Hansda

The Renaissance is a period in Europe from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century and is considered to be the bridge between the Middle Ages and modern history. It started as a cultural movement in Italy in the Late Medieval period and later spread to the rest of Europe, marking the beginning of the Early Modern Age. Early examples include the development of perspective oil painting and the recycled knowledge of how to make concrete. The Renaissance is best known for its artistic developments and the contribution of such polymaths as Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci and Michelangelo. The quest for ace knowledge in art led to diversification of work. Dissection of corpses was one such discipline which became consequential to depict accurate human bodies.

Historians and scholars regard Leonardo da Vinci as the prime example of the ‘Universal Genius’ or ‘Renaissance Man’, an individual of ‘unquenchable curiosity’ and ‘feverishly inventive’ imagination. According to art Historian Helen Gardner, the scope and depth of his interests were without precedent in recorded history and ‘his mind and personality seem to us superhuman while the man himself mysterious and remote’. Marco Rosci, however, notes that while there is much speculation regarding his life and personality, his view of the world was logical rather than mysterious and that the empirical methods he employed were unorthodox for his time. Leonardo da Vinci was and is renowned primarily as a painter.  Among his works, the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and the Vitruvian Man, all iconic pieces. Nevertheless, his works, together with his notebooks which contain drawings, scientific diagrams, and his thoughts on the nature of the painting, compose a contribution to the later generations of artists rivaled only by that of his contemporary, Michelangelo, the Italian sculptor with proficiency in numerous other subjects.

Italian Renaissance artists worked on their anatomical skills and knowledge by necessity as they attempted to refine a more lifelike and sculptural portrayal of the human figure. It saw the revered Leonardo da Vinci, the ‘Renaissance Man’,   play a magnanimous role in the evolution of Anatomy during this period. His pursuit in the discipline of Anatomy depicted the need to precisely describe the human body and its muscles and, consequently, elevated this subject to a higher form. More specifically, the unique approach taken by the artists of his stature allowed Anatomy to be viewed in a completely new way for the first time.

It is interesting to compare the goals of Anatomy prior to and after the fourteenth century, which is, before and after the period of Renaissance. Prior to this period, anatomists did not  seek to add to the existing body of knowledge but only to help the students remember what they were learning in their texts. Anatomy began to be viewed as an area of research after the fourteenth century. It was at this time that it was acceptable for artists to dissect. One of the great changes in thinking occurred around the same time when the Florentines revived the classical works of the Greeks. This included the ideas of revering the body for its beauty and strength, believing that men represented the Gods. and that the body should be prized because it would not survive death. The treatise by Galen was discovered at the end of the fourteenth century and this resulted in a revived interest in naturalism. Naturalism in the arts is the attempt to represent the subject matter truthfully without artificiality and avoiding conventions, implausible, exotic, and supernatural elements. With this, Physicians had been taking on a more humanistic approach to their education and practice.

After translating Plato, Marsilo Ficino, the Italian humanist philosopher, stated that ‘love is the desire of beauty’. Since man was a loving creature, man would love beauty. This set the stage very nicely for a change in the way society looked at art. Thus, the artists had a good reason to dissect: so they could accurately represent the body. Dissections, thus, began to take on a larger audience. Later in the sixteenth century, permanent anatomy theatres were established in the fields of medicine and art. With this kind of popularity, cadavers came into high demand. Both artists and anatomists wanted to work on cadavers.

The patron families in Florence, Italy, such as the Medici, provided an environment for the scientists and artists to come together. The House of Medici was an Italian banking family, political dynasty and later royal house. They, along with the other families of Italy, such as the Visconti and Sforza of Milan, the Este of Ferrara and the Gonzaga of Mantua, fostered and inspired the birth of the Italian Renaissance.Two famous figures supported by this family were Michelangelo and Antonio Benivieni. Antonio Benivieni was a Florentine physician who pioneered the use of the autopsy, a postmortem dissection of a deceased patient’s body, used to understand the cause of death. This allowed for the easy exchange of ideas and possibly collaboration. Renaissance scholars employed the humanist method in study and searched for realism and human emotion in art. Indeed, until about 1500-1510, their investigations surpassed much of the knowledge of Anatomy which was taught at the universities. Opportunities for direct Anatomical dissections were restricted during Renaissance..

Leonardo da Vinci, who created some of the most famous works of art ever seen, was also deeply involved in anatomical dissections.  He had understood the necessity of the knowledge of dissection. He emphasized that viewing his drawings were superior to witnessing a single dissection. Leonardo da Vinci made over 1550 anatomical drawings in his lifetime and was the first to accurately depict a human embryo. He felt that he could approach the body with an unprejudiced eye and more often saw what was actually there. Leonardo da Vinci strove to understand the inner workings of the body, whether for public health or autopsy. He desired to reproduce the most accurate, natural, and beautiful form by understanding what lay beneath and thus represent what was seen. In the end the artists were a major influence in the evolution of the art of anatomy.   Leonardo da Vinci was not a prolific painter but a revered draftsman, keeping journals full of sketches and detailed drawings, recording all manners of things which took his attention. It appears from the content of his journals that he was planning a series of treatises to be published on a variety of subjects. Aspects of his work on the studies of Anatomy and many more were eventually published as ‘Treatise on Painting’ by Leonardo da Vinci in France and Italy in 1651, and Germany in 1724. According to Arasse, the treatise, which in France went into 62 editions in 50 years, caused Leonardo to be seen as ‘the Precursor of French academic thought on art’. Leonardo started his study in the Anatomy of the human body under the apprenticeship of Andria del Verrocchio,who demanded that his students develop a deep knowledge of the subject. As an artist, he quickly became master of Topographic Anatomy, drawing many studies of muscles, tendons, and other visible anatomical features. As 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 240 detailed drawings and wrote about 13,000 words towards a treatise on Anatomy.  These papers were left to his heir, Francesco Melzi, for publications, a task of overwhelming difficulty because of its scope and Leonardo’s Idiosyncratic writing. It was left incomplete at the time of Melzi’s death more than 50 years later, with only a small of the material on Anatomy included in Leonardo’s ‘Treatise on painting’, published in France in 1632. During the time that Melzi was ordering the material into chapters for publication , they were examined by a number of Anatomists and artists, including Vasari, Cellini and Albrecht Durer who made a number of drawings from them. Leonardo’s anatomical drawings include many studies of the human skeleton and its parts and studies of the muscle. He studied the mechanical functions of the skeleton and the muscular forces which are applied to it in a manner which prefigured the modern science of biomechanics. He drew the heart and the vascular system, the sex organs and the internal organs, making one of the first scientific drawings of a fetus in utero. The drawings and notation were far ahead of their time and if published would undoubtedly have made a major contribution to medical science. Leonardo da Vinci created models of the Cerebral ventricles with the use of melted wax and constructed a glass aorta to observe the circulation of of blood through the aortic valve by using water and grass seed to watch flow patterns. Vesalius published his work on Anatomy and Physiology in De humani corporis fabricain 1543.

The Italian Renaissance viewed the uprising of the great artists who also took up the profession of anatomy by virtue of the demand for accuracy in art. Leonardo da Vinci conveyed the message across that art and anatomy complemented each other and the knowledge of anatomy was indispensable for an artist during that period when much about the form of the human body had not been known.