Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘to do’ list and his thoughts on what it takes to be a great anatomist are revealed in a remarkable sheet from one of the artist’s notebooks. Written around 1508-10 in his distinctive mirror-writing, the page of notes goes on display for the first time next month in Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.
Leonardo has long been recognised as one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance. However, Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist, the largest ever exhibition of Leonardo’s ground-breaking studies of the human body, will show Leonardo to be one of the most original and perceptive anatomists of his or any other time. His discoveries would have transformed European knowledge of the subject, but their significance remained lost to the world until the 20th century.
Working in hospitals and medical schools, Leonardo undertook dissections to investigate bones, muscles, vessels and organs, recording them with unparalleled clarity. Despite his intention to publish his work, on Leonardo’s death in 1519 his anatomical studies still remained among his private papers. These papers were pasted into albums by the artist’s successors, and one of the albums, containing all of Leonardo’s surviving anatomical studies, arrived in England in the 17th century. It was probably acquired by Charles II and has been in the Royal Collection since at least 1690.
This particular sheet of paper is remarkable not for its anatomical drawings, but for the densely packed miscellany of notes that cover the entire surface. Leonardo lists spectacles, stockings, shoelaces, a pane of glass, a fine-tooth bone saw, forceps and a skull as just some of the items that he thought he might need for a journey. He reminds himself to obtain a skull, to get his books on anatomy bound, to observe the holes in the substance of the brain, to describe the tongue of the woodpecker and the jaw of a crocodile, and to give the measurement of a dead man using his finger as a unit.
On the same page, the artist records what he considers to be the essential qualities of a successful anatomical draughtsman. He highlights not only skill in drawing, but also knowledge of perspective, an understanding of the forces and strengths of the muscles, and patience. He warns, however, that you may ‘be impeded by your stomach’ or ‘by the fear of living through the night in the company of quartered and flayed corpses, fearful to behold’.
As dissection without fixatives or preservatives was a messy process, Leonardo probably made his sketches and notes after completing the work. On the same piece of paper he lists and draws a number of his dissection tools, including a bistory (a fine surgical knife), forceps, a fine-tooth bone saw and scalpel. Glimpses of the gruesome nature of the activity appear in Leonardo’s notes, such as a reminder to ‘break the jaw from the side so that you can see the uvula in its position’.
Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace,
4 May – 7 October 2012.