museum review - Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist

The heart and coronary vessels, c.1511–13
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The largest ever exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s studies of the human body is on display at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace from May 4 to October 7.


A pioneer of anatomy, Leonardo da Vinci’s ground-breaking sketches and notes on the human body would have transformed European knowledge of the subject at the time. He had intended to publish his discoveries in a treatise on anatomy, but on his death in 1519 the drawings remained among his private papers and they were effectively lost to the world for almost 400 years. 

The Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace showcases the largest exhibition of these studies – on display from May 4.

As well as his obvious artistic ability, Leonardo’s skill at dissection, and his insights as an architect and engineer, enabled him to illustrate three-dimensional structures with the utmost precision.

The foetus in the womb, c.1511

After scrutinising the external features of the human form in an almost architectural manner, Leonardo went on to investigate the form of muscles and their attachment to bones, by first dissecting animals.

By the beginning of the 16th century he had sufficient standing to be permitted to work on human corpses, usually the bodies of executed criminals or those who had no relatives to claim them for burial. Working in hospitals and medical schools, he undertook dissections to investigate the bones, muscles, vessels, and organs.

The foetus in the womb, c.1511

His studies of around 20 autopsies in the medical school of the University of Pavia are recorded in the Anatomical Manuscript A, in which Leonardo illustrates every bone in the human body except those of the skull, and many of the major muscle groups. On this series of 18 sheets he made over 240 individual drawings, and notes running to more than 13,000 words in his distinctive mirror-writing.

Leonardo’s last and greatest anatomical campaign was an investigation of the heart. He came very close to discovering the circulation of the blood, a century before William Harvey, and some of his observations are only now being confirmed by computer modelling and advanced scanning techniques.

After this, his anatomical researches came to a halt for unknown reasons, and his drawings remained unpublished in his studio at his death. These papers were pasted into albums by his successors, and one of these albums, containing all of Leonardo’s surviving anatomical studies, arrived in England in the 17th century. This album was probably acquired by Charles II, and Leonardo’s anatomical drawings have been in the Royal Collection since at least 1690.



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The Queen's Gallery
Buckingham Palace, London
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