Leonardo da Vinci - the anatomist (1930) 5

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A personal message from Dr Mark Hill (May 2020)  
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I have decided to take early retirement in September 2020. During the many years online I have received wonderful feedback from many readers, researchers and students interested in human embryology. I especially thank my research collaborators and contributors to the site. The good news is Embryology will remain online and I will continue my association with UNSW Australia. I look forward to updating and including the many exciting new discoveries in Embryology!

McMurrich JP. Leonardo da Vinci - the anatomist. (1930) Carnegie institution of Washington, Williams & Wilkins Company, Baltimore.

   Leonardo da Vinci (1930): 1 Introductory | 2 Anatomy from Galen to Leonardo | 3 Possible Literary Sources of Leonardo’s Anatomical Knowledge | 4 Anatomical Illustration before Leonardo | 5 Fortunes and Friends | 6 Leonardo’s Manuscripts, their Reproduction and his Projected Book | 7 Leonardo’s Anatomical Methods | 8 General Anatomy and Physiology | 9 Leonardo’s Canon of Proportions | 10 The Skeleton | 11 The Muscles | 12 The Heart | 13 The Blood-vessels | 14 The Organs of Digestion | 15 The Organs of Respiration | 16 The Excretory and Reproductive Organs | 17 The Nervous System | 18 The Sense Organs | 19 Embryology | 20 Comparative Anatomy | 21 Botany | 22 Conclusion | References | Glossary of Terms | List of Illustrations
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Leonardo da Vinci - The Anatomist

Chapter V Fortunes and Friends

The story of Leonardo’s life has been told so often and so well that attention may here be confined to those incidents that may have had an influence on the origin and progress of his anatomical studies. A child born out of wedlock, he spent a lonely boyhood on the Tuscan hills, where, like Giotto, he amused himself by watching the beasts, birds, insects, trees and flowers that peopled and clothed the hillsides, and by picturing them upon whatever material came to his hands. As he grew to maturity his father, noting his artistic ability, decided to apprentice him to one of the Florentine artists, and probably in his eighteenth year, that is to say in 1470, he entered the studio of Verrocchio.

Here his progress was rapid and soon he surpassed even his master in artistic ability. But here too he no doubt received his first stimulus to anatomical studies, for Verrocchio was one of those who believed in the study of the surface musculature as a prerequisite for the correct delineation of the nude. It is reasonable to suppose that the master may have suggested to his pupil or even have required of him that he should attend “Anatomies” when these were held, or, better still, that he should practice dissection himself. It is reasonable to suppose also that he would have begun his anatomical studies early in his apprenticeage to Verrocchio, as a young man of eighteen or twenty.

Leonardo, then, approached the study of anatomy primarily as an artist, but once having begun it he was carried on by his desire to plumb the depths of knowledge, to pass far beyond the limit of artistic anatomy and to expose the secret arcana of the human body. But while he sooner or later came to study anatomy for anatomy’s sake, an appreciation of its importance to the artist never left him, as is evidenced by the large number of drawings in his note-books illustrating surface anatomy and by his extensive series of measurements of the body and its parts, with the object of determining a canon of proportions, and by words as well as by pictures he emphasizes the importance of a knowledge of anatomy for an artist.

“The painter who has knowledge of the nature of tendons ( 'nervi ), muscles and lacerti will readily appreciate in the movement of a member how many and what tendons are the cause of it, what muscle by its enlargement is the cause of the shortening of the tendon, and what corde, converted into most delicate cartilages enwrap and enclose the muscle, producing the various effects of form. And he will not do as many do, who in different actions portray the same things in the arm, the back, the breast and in other muscles, which things should not be placed among the little errors.” . . .

“Necessity compels the painter to have knowledge of the bones, which form the support and scaffolding for the overlying flesh, and similarly of the joints, which, in bending, increase in size and lessen.”

There quotations are from the Trattato della Pittura, and other similar passages might be quoted.

Whether one regards the artist or the anatomist as predominant in Leonardo will depend largely upon the point of view. If attention be focused on his achievements as an anatomist, one is in danger of underestimating his excellencies in other fields of knowledge, mechanics, dynamics, hydrostatics, military and hydraulic engineering, aeronautics, astronomy, geology and botany. But his discoveries in all these fields, as well as in anatomy, were the result of excursions from the main path he had chosen to follow. From time to time vistas into unexplored territories caught his attention, and leaving the high road he would follow a side path until his interest in it was satisfied. Anatomy was one of his side paths; painting was his main road. It was as an artist that he entered Verrocchio’s studio and it was as an artist that he gained contemporary renown, and even if the story be mythical that on his deathbed he regretted that he had not devoted himself more whole-heartedly to art, nevertheless it is ben trovato and an indication of the estimate placed by his immediate successors upon his achievements as an artist compared with those of the scientist.

It has been pointed out that the Studium Generale that had been established at Florence was removed to Pisa two years after Leonardo took up his residence in the former city, and he could not, therefore, have availed himself for any great length of time of the opportunities that the Medical Faculty may have offered for dissections. But failing these opportunities he found others elsewhere, for an anonymous biographer, writing shortly after his death, states that he “made many Anatomies, which he performed in the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence,” an hospital founded in 1255 by Folco Portinari, the father of Dante’s Beatrice. Indeed Leonardo’s own words lead one to infer that he made dissections in that institution.

“And this old man, a few hours before his death, told me that he had passed one hundred years and that he was not conscious of any failure in the body, except weakness. And thus sitting on a bed in the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova of Florence, without any movement or indication of any accident, he passed from this life. And I made an Anatomy of him (io ne feci natomia) to see the cause of a death so sweet, and I found it to come from weakness from the failure of the blood and artery which nourishes the heart and the other lower organs, which I found arid, thin and dry. Which anatomy I described rather diligently and with great ease, on account of the absence of fat and humor, which rather hinder a knowledge of the parts. The other anatomy was of a child of two years, in which I found everything the opposite of what it was in the old man.” (AnB, 10.)

Drawings, sketches or memoranda based on the dissection of this centenarian subject are found on no less than thirteen pages of AnB (viz. 3v, 4, 10, lOv, llv, 22, 22v, 32, 32v, 33, 33v, 34, 34v) and give evidence that at the time they were made Leonardo had passed beyond the artist’s standpoint in his anatomical studies. He is studying the deeper structure of the body and has become interested in the problems of age and death, problems that he conceived to be capable of scientific elucidation by applying the scientific methods of observation and comparison. Plow soon he reached this stage in his development as an anatomist is uncertain, but it is perhaps significant that on AnB, 42 there is a note “On the day 2 of April 1489 book entitled De figura humana.” This has been taken as an indication that he began his studies in anatomy at that time; in reality it indicates that on that day he began to write or to collect material for a projected book on human anatomy, of which more anon. Before embarking on such an enterprize, Leonardo must have had considerable experience in anatomy, a beginner would hardly venture upon the writing of such a work as he contemplated, and the beginning of his anatomical studies must have been long before 1489.

At that date Leonardo was no longer a resident of Florence; after a stay in that city of approximately thirteen years, in 1483 he took service under Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, known as II Moro. During those thirteen years he had become an independent artist of considerable repute, for to this period belong the St. Jerome, the Annunciation and the Adoration of the Magi, this last remaining uncompleted when he removed to Milan. Not a very abundant harvest for so many years, but it must be remembered that Leonardo was not a prolific artist and he had many other interests that continually distracted him from his painting. Anatomy was one of these distractions, but he was also giving free rein to his genius for invention, as is shown by a letter to the Duke of Milan in which, with naive confidence, he catalogues the various services he is prepared to render. He could construct portable and yet strong bridges; drain the moats of castles and make scaling ladders; make bombards that will reduce to ruins any fortress; run mines, even under moats and rivers; construct armored cars; make catapults, slings, mortars and cannons different from any then in use; and in case the conflict was at sea he could build ships that would withstand even the largest bombs. In time of peace he could design public and private buildings and construct waterways; he could made statues of marble, bronze or clay and also paint pictures as well as any other, no matter who he might be. Finally, he could construct an equestrian statue “that will be to the immortal glory and eternal honour of the blessed memory of my lord your father and of the renowned house of Sforza.” And he was prepared to demonstrate his ability to make good his boasts in the ducal park or wherever else it might please his Excellency.

These accomplishments could not be vain boastings. Leonardo must have thought out and planned the various warlike engines that he catalogues; he must have studied the principles of architecture as they were then known and gained experience in the planning and specifications of buildings; he must have worked in marble, bronze and clay; and he had already begun those studies of waterways and canals which, on a large scale, were to interest him later. Surely all this studying, designing, planning, modeling, inventing and dissection suffice to indicate that these thirteen years in Florence were not spent in idleness, notwithstanding the paucity of his pictures. Surely, too, in carrying on all these activities he must have made many memoranda, in other words, his note-books must have been begun before his migration to Milan. Unfortunately, this must remain a conjecture, since 1489 is the earliest definite date in his manuscripts, although some of them contain indications that they belong to an earlier date. Thus a sketch of a man hanged and the notes accompanying it refer to the execution of Bernardo Bandini, who was hanged from a window of the Capitano in 1479, for complicity in the Pazzi revolt against the power of the Medici. Also, the similarity of a sketch of a head in the Windsor collection to the head of the Madonna in the Adoration of the Magi, upon which work was begun in 1481, is striking, if not conclusive.

It may be assumed, then, that before his migration to Milan in 1483, Leonardo had begun his studies in anatomy and it may also be assumed that he continued them in that city, since six years after he had joined the ducal court he announces his intention of writing a treatise on the subject. The first two years of his residence in Milan were little propitious for work on anatomy. The war with the republic of Venice turned his attention to military engineering, the while the fate of the Duchy hung in the balance, and in 1484-85 Milan was devastated by an outbreak of the plague. With the return of better times his patron insisted on the fulfilment of the promise to create an equestrian statue in memory of Francesco Sforza, and Leonardo plunged into the study of the surface anatomy and proportions of the horse, producing the collection of sketches and drawings now in the Royal Library at Windsor. Perhaps this was not his first experience in this work; he may have owed his initiation into it, as well as into human anatomy, to Verrocchio, who had begun work on his magnificent equestrian statue of Bartholommeo Colleone before Leonardo left Florence. But Leonardo’s enthusiasm in the work soon waned and it was not until 1493 that a model of the statue in plaster was erected on the piazza del Castello, a model destined never to be completed in bronze, but to be destroyed by the French soldiers when Milan was in possession of the army of Louis XII.

It is evident that in Milan, as in Florence, other interests drew him away from the chief work he had in hand, the completion of the Sforza statue. There were many distractions arising from his connection with the ducal court and there was the painting of the Last Supper for the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, completed in 149S, but more important to the present purpose was his resumption of his studies in human anatomy, interrupted by his departure from Florence. That they were again taken up is indicated by the declaration of his intention to write a book on the subject (1489) and it is perhaps noteworthy that while the great majority of his drawings illustrating the anatomy of the horse are of the surface anatomy and drawn from the standpoint of the artist, there are certain sketches (AnB 1 ; QV, 22) that are more detailed, showing the muscles of a horse’s thigh compared with the arrangement of the corresponding muscles of a man. The inference is that he was carrying on his studies of human anatomy at the same time that he was studying the horse. Of the conditions under which he carried on his anatomical studies in Milan nothing is known, though it is altogether probable that opportunities were afforded in the Ospedale Maggiore, whose erection had been begun in 1456, and Lanzillotti-Buonsanti (1897) has suggested that he might also have made use of the Collegio dei Nobili Fisici, which was then flourishing and was the chief school of Medicine in Milan. One does not find record of the establishment of a University at Milan, but under the energetic rule of Ludovico Sforza men of repute in literature, science and the arts were attracted to the ducal court and instruction was provided in certain subjects. Leonardo thus found congenial associations with men interested like himself in the acquisition of knowledge and with whom he might discuss the problems and ideas continually occurring to his fertile imagination. In his studies of military engineering, Leonardo had the encouragement of Pietro Monti, the author in later years of works on military art and, in his old age, of a treatise which vainly endeavored to stem the increasing tide of the Protestant Reformation. In architecture he had for colleagues Bramante and Giacomo .Vndrea of Ferrara, the latter probably his most intimate friend, who forfeited his life to his loyalty to his patron Ludovico. And in mathematical studies Leonardo had a common interest with Fazio Cardano, the father of the more celebrated Girolamo Cardano, but himself a skilled mathematician, though also a devotee of the occult science and a disciple of Raymund Lull.

More important, however, in the present connection, was Leonardo’s association with Luca Pacioli, the most accomplished mathematician of his day. Pacioli was born in 1445 in a Tuscan village, situated on the upper waters of the Tiber and known as Borgo San Sepolcro. On reaching full manhood he entered the Franciscan Order and his superiors, recognizing his remarkable aptitude for mathematical studies, gave him opportunity to devote himself to them, the remainder of his life being passed in one after the other of the principal cities of Italy, in lecturing and giving instruction in his favorite science. In 1496 he was invited by Ludovico Sforza to give lectures in Milan and during his four years of residence in that city he lived on intimate terms with Leonardo. During a residence in Urbino, Pacioli had written his greatest work, the Summa de aritmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionality, published in Venice in 1494, and, as Solmi (1919) has pointed out, this work was already known to Leonardo before the arrival of Pacioli in Milan and may have served as the attractive force which brought the two men into the intimate relations that led to cooperation. For in 1497 Pacioli completed a brief treatise, the de divina proportione, published in Venice but not until 1509, the illustrations of which were drawn by Leonardo. The divine proportion of Pacioli is what was termed by earlier authors the golden section, that is to say the division of a line into its mean and extreme ratios, 1 a division to which certain mystical attributes have been assigned. The first part of Pacioli ’s treatise is the application of this proportion to architecture and he then passes on to a consideration of the five regular solids and their modifications, the figures of these being Leonardo’s contribution to the work, but in addition he also furnished a figure representing the proportions of the human body and its members, the body being shown inscribed in a square and also in a circle (see Fig. 13). These figures are of interest as showing that Leonardo was at this time engaged in working out his canon of the proportions of the body, a study to which many pages of his manuscripts were devoted. Favaro in his careful study of Leonardo’s canon (1917) points out that in the details there is little correspondence between the Pacioli figures and the final results to be deduced from the manuscripts, and it may be that the Pacioli figures were among Leonardo’s first efforts in this field of study, drawn at the request of his friend.


1 Euclid, Book II, prop. 11.


The peaceful, busy years of Leonardo’s first residence in Milan w r ere brought to an end toward the close of the year 1499. With a view to the success of his political intrigues, Ludovico Sforza in 1494 had enlisted the aid of the French king, Charles VIII, who saw in the alliance an opportunity for the enforcement of his imaginary claims to the kingdom of Naples. The foreign invasion, successful at first, awakened the fears of the other Italian principalities and a league was formed, with the Pope and the Republic of Venice at its head, to drive the French from Italy. With this league Sforza felt compelled to join, deserting his former ally, and the new alliance was successful in its object, Charles being obliged to withdraw to his own dominions. On his death in 1498, his successor, Louis XII, took up his claims and added to them one to the duchy of Milan, inherited from his grandmother. To guard against failure of his plans he entered into alliance with Venice and with the Pope, and thus secured from interference his conquest of Milan was an easy task. The city was occupied by the French in October of 1499 and for two months Leonardo endured the disturbances and disorders consequent upon the occupation, but in December of that year he left Milan, accompanied by his friend, Luca Pacioli, and made his way to Venice, breaking the journey by a short stay in Mantua. Their stay in Venice was, however, of brief duration, too brief for any extensive anatomical observations, though it is to be noted that the conduct of Anatomies in Venice was at this time in the hands of Alessandro Benedetti, who, by his enthusiasm and skill as an expositor, was able to attract such large and influential audiences to his demonstrations as to warrant a proposal for the erection of an anatomical theater similar to the temporary ones that had been constructed at Verona and Rome. One is tempted to assume that Leonardo would not have failed to make use of the opportunity presented by his stay in Venice to discuss problems in anatomy with Benedetti and even, if the occasion offered, to witness one or more of his demonstrations. As has been pointed out Leonardo was familiar with Benedetti’s treatise on anatomy, but the note-book in which the reference to it occurs is of later date than the Venetian visit, for on its first page one finds the words “Cominciato a Milano addi 12 di Settembre 1508,” and one can not say whether the reference recalls a personal acquaintance with Benedetti or merely indicates a knowledge of his treatise Anatomice sive Historia corporis Humani.

In February 1500 Ludovico Sforza was able to regain possession of Milan, but only temporarily, for in April of the same year, when confronted by the French army near Novara, his Swiss mercenaries deserted him, and in endeavoring to escape from the field of battle he was made prisoner and later conveyed to France, where he died in captivity. With the overthrowal of Sforza, Leonardo was deprived of the patron under whom he had served for so many years and, as a result, he determined to return to Florence, reaching that city, still accompanied by Luca Pacioli, toward the end of April (1500). Of his activities during this second residence in Florence there is evidence in a letter from the Carmelite Petrus de Nuvolaria to Isabella Gonzaga duchess of Mantua, who had written to him requesting that he should endeavor to induce Leonardo to undertake a picture for her studio or, if he were reluctant, to try at least to induce him to paint “uno quadretto de la Madonna, devoto e dolce, come e il suo naturale.” To this request the worthy Carmelite replied that Leonardo’s interests were varied and very indefinite, as if he lived from day to day, that he had completed the cartoon of the Santa Anna Metterza and that he “was working much at geometry and was very impatient with the brush.” This was in 1501 and gives no indication that Leonardo had resumed his anatomical studies; his interest in geometry was then predominant.

But new distractions were in store for him. In 1501 the Pope Alexander VI had bestowed upon his son, Caesar Borgia, the title of Duke of Romagna, and this handsome, talented, unscrupulous man, master of the perfidious diplomacy of his time, Macchiavelli’s Prince, at once began by force of arms and hideous treachery to carry out his plan for the establishment of an hereditary principality, to be composed of the central Italian states, Umbria, Romagna and the Marches. After some prehminary success he requisitioned the services of Leonardo as a military engineer, commissioning him to inspect the citadels and fortresses of his state and to make in them such alterations and additions as might be deemed necessary, and in accordance with his appointment Leonardo spent the summer of 1502 and the winter of 1502-3 in traveling from city to city of central Italy, as they fell in succession before the arms or the perfidy of the Borgia. But in the spring of 1503 he again returned to Florence and resumed his anatomical studies in Santa Maria Nuova, it being probably to this period that the dissection of il vecchio belongs. It was at this period also that Leonardo painted the ill-fated fresco of The Battle of Anghiari, intended for the decoration of the large council chamber of the Palazzo Vecchio; and it may be an indication that while painting this picture he was also carrying on in anatomy, that on QVI, 13, in addition to some anatomical drawings, there is a sketch in red crayon outlined in ink of three figures, one on horseback, engaged in combat ; it may very well be a sketch for The Battle of Anghiari.

During a short retirement to Fiesole in 1505, Leonardo resumed his study of the flight of birds that had been commenced in Milan, a small note-book (Sa.), dating from that year and edited by Sabachnikoff, being filled with various sketches bearing on the subject. It would seem that at this time he had completed his design of a flying machine, of which sketches are to be found in various note-books and especially in the Codex Atlanticus (C. A. 308-3 14v), and in connection with which his bird studies were mainly carried on. For he planned that his “great bird” should take off from the slope of Monte Ceceri, one of the hills in the neighborhood of Fiesole, “filling the universe with wonder, filling literature with its fame and eternal glory to the nest where it was born” (Sa., 18v).

Before the end of 1505, Leonardo had returned to Florence and completed the portrait of Mona Lisa, upon which he had been engaged for some time. But requests for his services were being pressed upon the Florentine Signoria by Charles d’Amboise, who, in the absence of Louis XII, acted as Governor of Milan. Unwillingly the Signoria finally, in 1506, acceded to the request of the French Governor and loaned him the services of Leonardo for a period of three months, a period which was later extended indefinitely, and Leonardo took up his second residence in Milan. Here he was to remain until 1513, except for some brief visits to Florence, necessitated by legal complications arising out of his father’s will, and during this period of his life, more than ever before, he was able to devote himself to scientific studies, among which anatomy occupied an important place. That he had taken up again his anatomical studies shortly after his return to Milan and was prosecuting them with assiduity is shown by his statement that he hoped to complete his anatomy in the spring of 1510 (AnA., 17). The hope, indeed, proved to be vain, but it was at about that time that he became associated with Marc Antonio della Torre, an association to which great importance has been attributed by several writers. This is no doubt due to the statement of Vasari who, after alluding to Leonardo’s studies of the anatomy of the horse, goes on to say —

“In addition 1 2 he gave attention, but with great care, to the anatomy of men, aided by and in turn aiding in this messer Marc Antonio della Torre, a distinguished philosopher who then lectured in Pavia and wrote on this subject. And he was among the first (as I have heard said) to commence to elucidate the affairs of medicine by the doctrine of Galen and to shed true light on anatomy, which, up to that time, had been involved in a great and most extensive darkness of ignorance. And in this he made marvelous use of the genius, labor and skill of Leonardo, who made a book (of anatomical drawings) done in red crayon and outlined with a pen, which he dissected with his own hand and drew with the greatest diligence. In this he showed the whole skeleton and to this he added in order all the nervi and covered it with muscles, the first attached to the bones, the second holding them firm and the third moving them. And among these, here and there he wrote descriptions in rough characters, which were made reversed with the left hand so that no one unskilful in reading can understand them, since they can only be read with a mirror.”

One might suppose, assuming the accuracy of this statement, that Leonardo’s anatomical studies were carried on only in association with Marc Antonio, indeed Blumenbach seems to have read into it the idea that Leonardo acted merely as the artist who made drawings of the preparations dissected by Marc Antonio. Marx (1848), who made a special study of the relations of the two men on the basis of data available in his time, recognized in Leonardo a higher degree of independence than either Vasari or Blumenbach, but still regarded Marc Antonio an important factor in his development as an Anatomist, associating him on terms of equality with Leonardo as one of the founders of anatomical illustration. And more than fifty years later, Forster (1904) interrogatively suggests the possibility that Leonardo’s drawings w T ere intended for the illustration of a work written by Marc Antonio, being influenced by the idea that anatomy was Marc Antonio’s life work, while with Leonardo it was merely a side issue.


1 The word here translated “in addition” ( dipoi ) may also be rendered “then” and has been taken to indicate that Leonardo began his studies of human anatomy only after he had completed his studies of the anatomy of the horse. It has been seen that this is highly improbable and the suggestion of Solmi (1919) that dipoi may be regarded as equivalent to inoltrc has been adopted.



With the fuller knowfledge of Leonardo’s work and of the periods at which it was done, a more just estimate of his relations with Marc Antonio has been reached by de Toni (1900) and Bottazzi (1907). Unfortunately, even the careful researches of the former have failed to furnish as full an account as is desirable of the life and character of Marc Antonio, who, for a brief period, shone among the luminaries of the Renaissance. Descendant of an ancient Italian family he was born at Verona in 1481, having for his father Girolamo della Torre, of some renown as a physician and for a time Professor of Medicine in the University of Padua. Following his father’s profession, he was appointed, while still a young man of twenty, public instructor of Medicine at Padua, later being advanced to the Professorship of the Theory of Medicine, and, the fame of his knowledge spreading, he was called to Pavia, then under the dominion of Ludovico Sforza, to be director of the department of anatomy. Either at Pavia or on a visit to Milan, some time in 1510 or 151 1 3 he met Leonardo and it may be supposed that a common interest in anatomical studies linked together in the bonds of friendship the young professor of thirty and the artist who was but little short of double that age. This friendship was, however, destined to be brief, for in 1511 Marc Antonio fell a victim to the plague, while ministering to the stricken inhabitants of Riva.

Marc Antonio della Torre grew to manhood at a time when the art of printing was lending its powerful aid to the development of the humanistic Renaissance, at a time when Aldus Manutius and his associates were editing and publishing the ancient classics in their original purity. Of this new-old learning he became an ardent student and early acquired such a reputation as a scholar that by one of his eulogists, Chiocco (quoted by Marx), he was regarded as of equal rank with Pico della Mirandola, the two being characterized as duos Ph&nices doctrinoe. To his erudition in the humanities he added knowledge of medicine, his interest in that subject having perhaps been fostered by his father, and so precocious was his learning that at the time of his first appointment as an instructor in Padua he had onlyattained his twentieth year. Of his work at Pavia little is known; Chiocco states that he illustrated his teaching of anatomy both by public Anatomies and by published writings, 4 and his pupil Paulus Jovius also asserts that he was the author of a work on anatomy. 5 Of this work nothing now remains, and even a transcription of his lectures in Anatomy, given at Pavia, which according to De Toni was made by one Girolamo Mantua in 1510, seems to have disappeared.

3 De Toni (1900) points out that Leonardo was in Milan in March 1510 and at Fiesole in May 1511, and concludes that he may have spent the winter of 1510-11 and the early spring of 1511 at Pavia, working with Marc Antonio.


Judging from the data now available, it seems improbable that Marc Antonio could have influenced Leonardo’s anatomical studies to any considerable extent, and it is certain that Leonardo did not play merely the subordinate role assigned to him by Blumenbach. So far as is known, the two men did not meet until 1510 or thereabout and Leonardo’s anatomical studies had been in progress long before that date. Even if 1489 be taken as the date at which they were begun, it is evident that Leonardo had already entered upon these studies at a time when Marc .Antonio was a child of eight years of age, and if, as seems probable, his studies began while he was still in apprenticeship to Verrocchio, they date back to a period before Marc .Antonio’s birth, and at the time of their meeting Leonardo had been interested in practical anatomy for nearly forty years. During that time he had made hundreds of anatomical drawings, which were intended for a book he hoped himself to write — not as illustrations for a treatise written by Marc Antonio. Nor can even the suggestion of Solmi (1919) be accepted, that it was the influence of Marc Antonio that stimulated Leonardo to study anatomy as a science in itself, independently of its applications to painting and sculpture. Even in 1489 Leonardo had progressed beyond the limits of artistic anatomy, indeed it was the the very essence of his genius that he looked beyond the immediate applications of a science to the fundamental principles of that science.

“Those,” ho said, “who are enamored of practice without science are like the navigator who embarks on a ship without rudder or compass; he never knows with certainty where he is going. Practice should always be built upon good theory” (G. 8).

He needed no outside influence to guide him to a study of anatomy for its own sake. Approaching it from the standpoint of an artist, at once his attention was focused on the problems of organization, function, growth, life and death and he sought their solution by observation and experiment, firm in his belief that —

“Experience never deceives, it is our judgment only that deceives us, expecting from experience what is not in its power.” (C. A. 154.)

“Anatomicam disciplinam corum temporum primus et sectione publics et scriptis editis illustrans." This is quoted from Marx; it may be true as regards Pavia, but there were both public Anatomies and public treatises before his time.

5 “Elaborabat is (M. Ant. Turrianus) profitendo simul atque secando damnatorum cadavcra anat. volumen ex placitis Galeni.” Quoted from M. Roth, Andreas Vesalius Bruxellcn-iis, Berlin, 1S92.



Marc Antonio, like Benedetti, was a hellenist; steeped in the humanistic revival of the classics, he preferred the teaching of Galen as he read it in the Greek text to the more or less perverted versions of it presented in the Arabistic translations. He endeavored, as Vasari (1912) puts it, “to elucidate the affairs of medicine by the teaching of Galen,” and he is said to have applied for permission to substitute Galen for Mondino, whose Anathomia was the prescribed text in the Italian Universities. Leonardo can not be classified as a hellenist, nor does the very modern attitude that he took in matters of science allow of his being termed an Arabist. But the foundations of his anatomical knowledge were derived from Arabistic sources and the terminology used in his anatomical and physiological writings smacks strongly of these same sources. If Marc Antonio’s influence had been dominant with him, one would expect in his later writings an avoidance of Arabistic terms, but this is not what one finds, Arabisms still occurring on the folios of Quaderni II, which are probably referable to the year 1513 or thereabout.

It is noteworthy, too, in this connection, that Leonardo never mentions Marc Antonio’s name in connection with his anatomical studies. He does not, it is true, make frequent references to authorities, but, if his indebtedness was as great as has been supposed, one might expect some indication of it in his writings. On Q III, 8 there is a reference to one Marc Antonio, “libro del acque a messer Marcantonio,” but even, as seems probable, this is a mention of Marc Antonio della Torre, it does not connect him with anatomical studies, but with some problem in hydraulics. Vasari, an artist, writing of Leonardo as an artist, might well be inclined to explain his remarkable achievements in anatomy by his association with a distinguished anatomist. But Leonardo’s anatomical studies were his own; he was engaged in them long before he met Marc Antonio and they were continued for several years after the death of the latter, nor is there any evidence in his later writings that he had gained a new viewpoint for his studies, or that his problems had been materially modified as the result of his association with Marc Antonio.

Another of Leonardo’s friendships should be noted. During the early months of 1507 he was residing at Vaprio, not far from Milan, at the villa of Gerolamo Melzi, whose son, Francesco, then a lad of fourteen, showed signs of artistic ability. Between the master and the pupil a friendship developed that in time came to resemble the relation of father to son, and when fickle Fortune forced Leonardo to resume his wanderings, the young Melzi elected to follow him, even to an alien land, and remained in his service until the master passed to the Great Beyond. In gratitude for the faithful services rendered by Melzi, Leonardo in his last will and testament bequeathed to him "all and every of the books which the said testator has at present,” and so Melzi became the possessor of the precious note books.

The vicissitudes of Italian politics were again to bring troublous days for Leonardo, and again he was to be forced to seek another residence than Milan. In 1508 the Pope, Julius II, who had succeeded Alexander VI, allied himself with the emperor Maximilian, with Ferdinand of Aragon and with Louis XII of France in the League of Cambrai, with the object of recovering the states of the Church that had been captured by the Venetians. This object having been successfully accomplished, the Pope in 1510 broke his alliance with the French and began a campaign to drive them from Italy. Maximilian and Ferdinand, jealous of the growing power of France, were ready to assist in her humiliation, Henry VIII of England was persuaded to revive an ancient claim to the throne of France, and with these monarchs and with the Venetians the Pope entered upon a so-called Holy League and declared war against France. Charles d’Amboise, with the aid of Gaston de Foix was for a time successful in resisting the efforts of the League to drive him from Milan, but his death in 1511 brought discouragement to the French and the fall of Gaston de Foix before the walls of Ravenna early in 1512 deprived them of all hope. Milan came into the possession of the allies, and, with their consent, again passed under the control of the house of Sforza in the person of Maximilian, the son of Ludovico.

The death of Charles d’Amboise deprived Leonardo of his patron, and the son of his former patron naturally could not look with favor upon one who had thrown in his lot with the enemies of his House. The situation in Milan again became impossible, but this time, instead of returning to Florence, Leonardo journeyed to Rome. Julius II died in 1513 and was succeeded by Giovanni de Medici, second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent and himself a patron of the Arts. His elevation to the Papacy, under the title of Leo X, attracted to Rome the most distinguished artists of the day, and, following the example of Fra Bartolommeo, Michel Angelo, Luca Signoretti, Bramante, Sodoma, Raphael and others, Leonardo in September 1513 left Milan for the Holy City, especially attracted by the presence there of the younger brother of the Pope, Giuliano de Medici, from whom he had already received marks of appreciation and esteem and into whose service he entered on his arrival at Rome.

Quarters were assigned to him in that part of the Vatican known as the Belvidere and he at once resumed his artistic and scientific activities. Just as in Florence he had been able to obtain cadavers for his anatomical studies at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, so in Rome he was afforded opportunities for continuing those studies in the Ospedale di Santo Spirito. But this privilege was of brief duration. A German mirror-maker, known to the Italians as Giovanni degli Specchi, conceiving the idea that Leonardo had supplanted him in the good graces of their common patron, Giuliano de Medici, seized upon every opportunity that presented itself for annoying and depreciating his supposed rival. He incited to base ingratitude a fellow countryman, a mechanic who had been placed under Leonardo’s orders that he might assist in the manufacture of certain instruments and machines and to whom Leonardo had shown that kindness and consideration he was wont to extend to his subordinates, and, not content with such annoyances, Giovanni spread abroad malicious reports concerning Leonardo’s anatomical studies, imputing to him cynical and sacrilegious motives. Unfortunately these evil machinations had their effect upon the Pope and upon the Prior of Santo Spirito and Leonardo was forbidden entrance to the Hospital.

Thus ends the record, all too imperfect in its details, of Leonardo’s anatomical investigations. There is no evidence to show that after this discouragement he again found opportunities for resuming his studies. Indeed, shortly after this incident the current of his life was again altered. Francis I, who had succeeded Louis XII on the throne of France in 1515, at once prepared to carry out the intentions of his predecessor by the recapture of Milan and led a powerful army over the Alps in that year. Giuliano de Medici was entrusted with the task of opposing the advance of the French, and Leonardo, despite his advancing years, accompanied him in the campaign. The story of its failure, of the success of the French, of Leonardo’s reception by his former friends, of his engagement to serve the French King, of his residence in France, a voluntary exile and the pensioner of a foreign monarch, this story need not be told here. Leonardo’s studies in anatomy ceased in 1514; the last five years of his life offered no opportunities for their further prosecution.



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Pages where the terms "Historic" (textbooks, papers, people, recommendations) appear on this site, and sections within pages where this disclaimer appears, indicate that the content and scientific understanding are specific to the time of publication. This means that while some scientific descriptions are still accurate, the terminology and interpretation of the developmental mechanisms reflect the understanding at the time of original publication and those of the preceding periods, these terms, interpretations and recommendations may not reflect our current scientific understanding.     (More? Embryology History | Historic Embryology Papers)
   Leonardo da Vinci (1930): 1 Introductory | 2 Anatomy from Galen to Leonardo | 3 Possible Literary Sources of Leonardo’s Anatomical Knowledge | 4 Anatomical Illustration before Leonardo | 5 Fortunes and Friends | 6 Leonardo’s Manuscripts, their Reproduction and his Projected Book | 7 Leonardo’s Anatomical Methods | 8 General Anatomy and Physiology | 9 Leonardo’s Canon of Proportions | 10 The Skeleton | 11 The Muscles | 12 The Heart | 13 The Blood-vessels | 14 The Organs of Digestion | 15 The Organs of Respiration | 16 The Excretory and Reproductive Organs | 17 The Nervous System | 18 The Sense Organs | 19 Embryology | 20 Comparative Anatomy | 21 Botany | 22 Conclusion | References | Glossary of Terms | List of Illustrations


Reference: McMurrich JP. Leonardo da Vinci - the anatomist. (1930) Carnegie institution of Washington, Williams & Wilkins Company, Baltimore.


Cite this page: Hill, M.A. (2020, July 14) Embryology Leonardo da Vinci - the anatomist (1930) 5. Retrieved from https://embryology.med.unsw.edu.au/embryology/index.php/Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_the_anatomist_(1930)_5

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