• Leonardo Studies

Leonardo Studies


Kim H. Veltman

Leonardo da Vinci: Studies of the Human Body and Principles of Anatomy

Keynote published in German as: Leonardo da Vinci Untersuchungen zum menschlichen Körper in : Gepeinigt, begehrt, vergessen. Symbolik und Sozialbezug des Körpers im späten Mittelalter und in der frühen Neuzeit, ed. Klaus Schreiner, Bad Homburg: Werner Reimers Stiftung, 1992, pp. 287- 308.
1. Introduction
2. Whole and Parts
3. Viewpoints
4. Levels and Ages
5. Movement
6. Transformation
7. Conclusions.

1. Introduction

In some ways Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) appears to be very traditional. He studies ancient sources such as Plato and Aristotle. It is likely that he may have studied Galen. He studies mediaeval sources such as Albert the Great and the anatomist Mondino de'Luzzi. This tradition leads him to compare the microcosm of the body and the macrocosm of the world. These analogies extend to comparisons between arteries in the body and underground rivers in the earth; the flow of blood to the head, with circulation of water to the summits of mountains; or blood when a vein bursts in the nose and water rushing out of a burst vein of the earth. His interest in such analogies is evident in the Ms A. (1492) and continues through the Codex Leicester (or Hammer) (c.1505-1510). There is some evidence that he rejects these analogies in the final years of his life (1514- 1519), and this has led scholars such as Kemp to assess Leonardo's originality in terms of his courage to abandon these traditional analogies.

For Leonardo, however, these microcosm-macrocosm analogies are more than outmoded comparisons belonging to a pre scientific age. They lead him to compare his study of the body and Ptolemy's study of the earth, and consequently to use Ptolemy's method in the Geography as a starting point for his own systematic study of anatomy:

Thus in fifteen entire figures you will have set before you the microcosm on the same plan as, before me, was adapted by Ptolemy in his Cosmography; and so I shall afterwards divide them into limbs as he divided the whole world into provinces; then I will speak of the function of each part in every direction, putting before your eyes a description of the whole form and substance of man, as regards his movements from place to place, by means of his different parts. And thus, if it please our great author, I may demonstrate the nature of men and their customs in the way I describe his figure.

The more closely we examine the system underlying Leonardo's study of the body, the more clearly we recognize its originality. Where earlier authors had relied almost exclusively on verbal descriptions, Leonardo emphasizes the significance of visual descriptions. As Dr. Keele has so acutely noted8 these are of three basic kinds: a) some are illustrations of previous sources, visualizing theories of Plato, Aristotle and others; b) some involve composite anatomy or 'bodyscapes', i.e. making imaginative compositions or schemata of anatomical parts; while c) others are based on actual observation. This third kind of drawing will be our chief concern.

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