Leonardo da Vinci: Art, anatomy and humanism

Anne Hudson Jones

University of Texas Medical Branch

There is the same difference between the poet's and the painter's representation of the human figure as there is between dismembered and united bodies. Because the poet in describing the beauty or ugliness of any figure can only show it to you consecutively, bit by bit, while the painter will display it all at once (Richter, no. 188).

Among the hundreds of Leonardo's extant anatomical drawings, surprisingly few represent whole bodies. Most of his anatomical works focus instead on specific body parts—skulls, organs, shoulders, arms, legs, feet—beautifully drawn and exactly detailed. Why do Leonardo's images of body parts so outnumber his images of the whole human body? Earlier in life Leonardo would have answered this question by pointing out that painters must understand the inner structure and function of the body—especially the muscles, tendons, and bones—before they can represent the human form accurately (Leonardo on painting 1989, 130-132). But by 1510-1511, when he collaborated in human dissection with the physician Marcantonio della Torre at the University of Pavia, he had become more scientist than artist, working primarily as anatomist, physiologist, pathologist, and medical illustrator. Marcantonio may have introduced Leonardo to the ideas of the second-century Greek anatomist Galen, who argued that mastery of the parts was essential before one could understand the body as a system (Clayton and Philo 2010, 22). In his later focus on body parts, Leonardo may have followed Galen's classical method of anatomical investigation.

Leonardo's few full-body figures deserve attention because they reflect so well his remarkable progression as thinker and artist from medieval, through early humanist, to mature humanist ways of understanding and representing the human body. A careful look at three of these figures provides a visual framework for discussing the emergence and development of Renaissance humanist ideas and does so with the immediacy that Leonardo praises as a superior attribute of painting.

In [the] figures there shall be revealed to you the microcosm on the same plan as before me was adopted by Ptolemy in his cosmography (Richter, no. 145).

In the first of these figures, referred to as The major organs and vessels (c. 1485-1490), Leonardo combines into one topographical image "two medieval traditions: the situs figure, showing the position of the major organs within the trunk, and the bloodletting figure, showing the recommended sites for venesection and, occasionally, the paths of the superficial vessels" (Clayton 2012) (fig. 1). Difficult to discern now after centuries of fading, originally the venous system was distinguished by a brown wash and the arterial system by a greenish wash. Next to one shoulder are the words "Spiritual parts" and between the legs, "Tree of the vessels." In so designating these regions of the body, Leonardo incorporates a third medieval tradition: the principle of the microcosm and the macrocosm, which held that the structure of the human body, a small world in itself, reflects the divine order of the universe and resonates with the harmony of the spheres. As Martin Clayton sums it up, this figure shows "not the workings of the human body but a snapshot of the medieval mind."

Every part of the whole must be in proportion to the whole (Leonardo da Vinci, Richter, no. 140).

In the second figure, the famous Vitruvian man (c. 1490), Leonardo depicts a human body that conforms perfectly to the systematized proportions laid out by the first-century Roman architect Vitruvius (fig. 2). In his explicit turn back to an ancient model in search of knowledge and wisdom, Leonardo follows early humanist practice. What he finds in Vitruvius is a mathematical formula for the proportions of all parts of the human body, which results in its idealized representation as the true microcosmic measure of all things. The geometric precision of this figure is well demonstrated in the Leonardo iPad App (Clayton 2012) with its interactive features that spin the human form within both a perfect circle and square. The perfection of this ideal human form corresponds visually to the early humanist belief in the unique central placement of human beings within the divine universal order and their consequent human grandeur and dignity, expressed in the philosopher Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486), known as the manifesto of the Renaissance. The continuing popularity of Leonardo's Vitruvian man, which appears even on the one-Euro coin, reflects the enduring attraction of this ideal. But such ideal proportions and symmetry do not exist in nature, as Leonardo soon realized by his careful observations and explorations of animal and human bodies.

And would that it might please our Creator that I were able to reveal the nature of man and his customs even as I describe his figure (Richter, no. 146).

In the last of these three full-body figures, A nude man from the front (c. 1504-1506), Leonardo displays a more mature humanist understanding and appreciation of the human body (fig. 3). One of a group of five drawings believed to be "studies of the nude executed either for the Anghiari project or as independent illustrations of an artistic theory about the rendering of surface musculature" (Keele and Pedretti 1978-1980, 2:839), this figure is drawn from life rather than from medieval theology or abstract classical philosophy. In this realistic representation, simply but beautifully rendered, Leonardo captures both the strength and vulnerability of the human male form in its prime. That the drawing may have been part of Leonardo's preparation for his large commemorative work to glorify Florentine victory in the Battle of Anghiari enlarges its context and invites reflection about deeply paradoxical human attributes. As did such later humanists as Montaigne in his Essays (1572-1588), Leonardo accepts the "true nature of man" and envisions the human form divine amidst the violent frenzy of battle.

Fig. 1 Leonardo da Vinci, The major organs and vessels, c. 1485-1490, pen and ink with brown and greenish wash, over black chalk, 27.8 x 19.7 cm. Windsor, Royal Library 912597r.

Fig. 2 Leonardo da Vinci, The Vitruvian man, c. 1490, pen and brown ink, brush and some brown wash, over metalpoint, 34.4 x 24.5 cm.  Galleria dell'Accademia, Venice, 228.

Fig. 3 Leonardo da Vinci, A nude man from the front, c. 1504-1506, red chalk and pen and ink on pale red prepared paper, 23.7 x 14.6 cm. Windsor, Royal Library 912594r.

Suggested reading

Martin Clayton, Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy, iPad App (London, 2012).

Martin Clayton and Ron Philo, Leonardo da Vinci: The mechanics of man (Los Angeles, 2010).

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the dignity of man (1486), trans. A. Robert Caponigri, (Chicago, 1956), http://www.andallthat.co.uk/uploads/2/3/8/9/2389220/pico_-_oration_on_the_dignity_of_man.pdf.

Domenico Laurenza, "In Search of a phantom: Marcantonio della Torre and Leonardo's late anatomical studies," in Leonardo da Vinci's anatomical world: Language, context and disegno, edited by Alessandro Nova & Domenico Laurenza, 61-77 (Venice 2011).

Miguel de Montaigne, The complete essays of Montaigne (1572-1578), 3 vols., edited by Donald M. Frame (Stanford, 1958).