Is it art or is is science? A display of drawings by a Renaissance artist would seem to be art, but they are the earliest known systematic studies of human anatomy, so they seem to be science.

This is the conundrum that resonates throughout a display of some of of Leonardo da Vinci’s studies of the human body that has just opened at The Queen’s Gallery.

Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist

That the display is even possible is itself a remarkable story.

Leonardo spent a substantial period of his life dissecting animals and for a while, human bodies and drawing up his researches, probably for a Magnum opus that he hoped to publish, but he died before the work could be completed.

Left to an assistant who struggled to make anything of them, they were sold in 1590 to an Italian Sculptor who is thought to be the person who catalogued them and bound them into a series of books. One of these books made its way to the UK, and turned up somehow in the Royal Collection at Windsor by 1690.

There the book sat, largely unnoticed until 1773 when the surgeon William Hunter studied them and urged their publication. He then also died. It wasn’t until around 1900 that the book was reproduced in Folio form and their significance became more widely understood.

The book was broken up in the 1970s, but this was so that each page could be protected from deterioration.

Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist

That brings us to 2012, and many of the drawings have gone on public display for the first time.

The gallery has been divided into zones which follow Leonardo’s researches, starting with animals, on to humans, and finally back to animals when he lost his patron shortly before he himself died.

This is a display that can either be looked at as a collection of 500 year old drawings by an accomplished artist, or as scientific records by a now respected anatomist.

His studies of bone structures and muscles were inspired initially as he felt they would assist in his paintings of the human form. He later found this was not really working, but he was by now sufficiently interested in the topic to carry on regardless.

An early decision he took was to abandon the idea of proportionality in the human form when he realised that the arms are rarely an exact percentage length compared to the head etc. His most famous drawing, the Vitruvian Man pre-dates that decision. The original is in the Accademia art gallery in Venice, but they have reproduced it here, because frankly, you just have to.

One mystery is when the drawings were carried out. Methods for preserving organs did not exist at the time, so either he drew rough notes while carrying out bloody dissections and then redrew them later, or drew them entirely from memory. Which it was is not known.

Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist

He also made a number of assumptions about the human body – especially females, of which he probably had fewer bodies to study. Most bodies were executed criminals, and hence tended to be male.

For example, he understood in detail how the womb looks in a Cow, so assumed that was the same in a human – leading to a drawing of a human female torso coming complete with cow reproductive organs.

Another drawing of a human baby is accurate, but again, put inside a womb that owes too much to a cow dissection – shown up by the representation of four placenta, which is correct for cows, but not humans.

Then again, if someone calls a woman a cow, maybe they aren’t being nasty and rude, but making allusions to 16th Century science?

Probably not.

Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist

My visit included a tour by the curator as part of a press event, so I didn’t try the audio guide, but it is likely to be necessary if you want to enjoy the exhibition as the description cards are fairly small and you’ll miss the history of his research otherwise.

The exhibition is open until October 2012 and entry is £9.25 per adult.

I picked up a copy of the book that accompanies the exhibition and is detailed with lots of high quality reproductions of his original drawings. There is also an iPad app that offers translations of his texts, and if you can read Medieval Italian, it can reverse his famous mirror writing.


The King’s Gallery,
Buckingham Palace,


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  1. Thony C says:

    “…but they are the earliest known studies of human anatomy…” No they are not. I’m sorry but that statement is pure historical rubbish.

    • IanVisits says:

      I meant to say systematic – but that got lost in my editing.

    • Thony C says:

      Even that would not be true 😉

    • IanVisits says:

      Would you care to elaborate then?

      I know my medical history is a bit rusty, but I really cannot think of whom you could be referring to – in part, not helped because you haven’t actually said.

    • Thony C says:

      Try Galen 1st century CE but even he probably wasn’t the first.

    • Thony C says:

      That should read 2nd century CE. There is a long prehistory to Galen’s anatomical studies that goes back at least to 1600 BCE in ancient Egypt. Even in the Renaissance Leonardo’s anatomical studies are part of a tradition among Renaissance artists who did dissection and studied anatomy to improve their drawings of the human body. The only major difference is that other studies haven’t survived. Art students today still attend medical dissections and make sketches and notes.

    • IanVisits says:

      Except that Galen didn’t dissect humans – he worked on animals and applied that theory to the human anatomy.

      The first systematic study of humans that was published was by Vesalius – just 40 years after Leonardo died.

    • Thony C says:

      Not all of Galen’s anatomical information came from animal dissection some came from humans, war victims etc. Much of Leonardo’s diagrams are also of animals and not humans.

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