The bones of the foot, and the shoulder


Leonardo da Vinci

Probably acquired by Charles II; Royal Collection by 1690


While a grounding in human anatomy was a commonplace in the training of Renaissance artists, Leonardo was one of the few to conduct dissections himself. He first became seriously interested in the subject in the late 1480s, outlining a plan for a treatise on the subject and making a number of drawings based on a haphazard combination of animal dissection, human skeletal material and received wisdom. These studies lapsed until around 1505, when Leonardo returned to the subject following his studies of superficial musculature for the mural of the Battle of Anghiari. He now had some access to corpses in the monastery and university hospitals (contrary to popular belief, properly regulated dissection was permitted by the Church), and in a famous note of 1508 he described witnessing the demise of a man who claimed to be over a hundred years old, whereupon Leonardo conducted an autopsy ‘to see the cause of so sweet a death’.

Leonardo’s finest anatomical work was carried out around 1510, when he was reportedly working in collaboration with Marcantonio della Torre, the young Professor of Anatomy at the University of Pavia twenty miles south of Milan. Marcantonio’s position allowed Leonardo greater access to human material: the number of dissections he claimed to have carried out increased from ‘more than ten’ around 1509 to ‘more than thirty’ towards the end of his life, and this is not contradicted by the quantity of surviving drawings. Only in his work around 1510 did Leonardo attain the working compromise between coverage and detail necessary for the projected treatise, and after Marcantonio’s death the following year Leonardo reverted to his habitual minute examination of specific topics (in this case cardiology and embryology). The treatise was never written, and Leonardo’s astonishing anatomical drawings were to languish unappreciated for centuries.

This double-sided sheet is one of a series of 18 studying the muscles and bones, compiled in the winter of 1510–11 probably in association with Marcantonio. One side of the sheet concentrates on the bones of the foot, the other on the muscles of the arm. The illustrations of the foot are extraordinary, with every bone evident and accurately articulated. Leonardo has consistently shown the little toe with two (rather than three) phalanges, a common variation found in almost half of individuals. The only real shortcoming is that these feet are ‘flat’: as Leonardo was working with dry, prepared material he did not capture the normal arch of the foot.

The drawings at upper and lower left show the lower aspect of the foot, and thus include the two small sesamoid bones found in the tendon below the joint of the big toe. The remaining studies of the foot concentrate on the articulation of the ankle joint, showing how the long bones of the lower leg, the tibia and fibula, articulate with the talus bone of the foot. The depiction of the shoulder at upper centre is rather less satisfactory: Leonardo has cut away the ‘rotator cuff’ of muscles around the shoulder joint, to show the placement of the upper head of the humerus in the ‘socket’ of the shoulder-blade or scapula, but the arrangement of the muscles is only approximately correct, and the curve of the collar-bone or clavicle is exaggerated.

As is often the case in Leonardo’s anatomical papers, most of the notes are not directly related to the drawings, but rather set out the plethora of depictions that Leonardo intended to provide. He recommends six orthogonal views of the foot (i.e. at mutual right angles, though it is here shown in a range of oblique views), and then that each bone should be drawn separated (again in six orthogonal views) and sectioned both along its length and across its width, with measurements given throughout.

Pen and ink with wash, over traces of black chalk

28.7 x 19.8 cm

RL 19011r