Previously unexhibited page from Leonardo's notebooks includes artist's 'to do' list

Release date: 
Thursday, 5 April 2012

Spectacles, stockings, shoelaces, a pane of glass, forceps and a fine-tooth bone saw – just some of the items that Leonardo da Vinci thought he might need for a journey.  Taken from a previously unexhibited page from his notebooks and written around 1510 in his distinctive mirror-writing, the extraordinary ‘to do’ list as well as his thoughts on dissecting and drawing corpses, give a unique insight into both Leonardo the anatomist and the man.  It will go on display for the first time next month, with 86 other sheets from the artist’s anatomical notebooks, in Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace (4 May – 7 October 2012).  

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 reveal 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 his 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 (although it does feature a number of sketches of veins, nerves and the brain), but for the densely packed miscellany of notes that cover the entire surface and are remarkably personal.  In his ‘to do’ list Leonardo 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.

Exhibition curator Martin Clayton says, ‘Like anyone about to undertake a journey, Leonardo is making a list of things to take with him – though alongside everyday items such as shirts, stockings and a towel, he lists his anatomical tools such as forceps, a scalpel and a bone-saw. Soon afterwards we know that he was dissecting corpses in the medical school of the university of Pavia, to the south of Milan, and so this packing list may have been drawn up before a journey to Pavia. This page is fascinating – Leonardo often covered the pages of his notebooks with observations about anatomy, but this page gives a really personal insight into Leonardo himself.’ 

On the same page, Leonardo 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 bistoury (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’.

An extract from Leonardo’s ‘to do’ list, c.1510:

Have Avicenna translated. ‘On the Utilities’.
Spectacles with case, firestick, fork, bistoury, charcoal, boards, sheets of paper, chalk, white, wax, forceps, pane of glass, fine-tooth bone saw, scalpel, inkhorn, pen-knife.
Get hold of a skull.  Nutmeg.
Observe the holes in the substance of the brain, where there are more or less of them.
Describe the tongue of the woodpecker and the jaw of a crocodile.
Give the measurement of the dead using his finger [as a unit].
The book ‘On Mechanical Science’ precedes that ‘On the Utilities’.  Get your books on anatomy bound.  Boots, stockings, comb, towel, shirts, shoe-laces, shoes, pen-knife, pens, a skin for the chest, gloves, wrapping paper, charcoal.
 

Leonardo’s thoughts on dissecting and drawing corpses, c.1510:

Though you may have a love for such things, you will perhaps be impeded by your stomach; and if this does not impede you, you will perhaps be impeded by the fear of living through the night hours in the company of quartered and flayed corpses, fearful to behold.  And if this does not impede you, perhaps you will lack the good draughtsmanship with such a depiction requires; and even if you have skill in drawing, it may not be accompanied by a knowledge of perspective; and if it were so accompanied, you may lack the methods of geometrical demonstration and of calculating the forces and strengths of the muscles; or perhaps you will lack patience so that you will not be diligent.  Whether all these things were found in me or not, the 120 books composed by me will give the verdict, yes or no.  In these I have been impeded neither by avarice nor negligence but only time.  Farewell.


Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist is at The Queen’s Gallery Buckingham Palace, 4 May – 7 October 2012.

Press View: 30 April, 10:00 – 12:30

Tickets and visitor information: www.royalcollection.org.uk or +44 (0)20 7766 7301.

For further information and photographs, please contact the Royal Collection Press Office, +44 (0)20 7839 1377, press@royalcollection.org.uk.  A selection of images is also available from www.picselect.com.