Leonardo da Vinci - the anatomist (1930) 6

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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 VI Leonardo’s Manuscripts, their Reproduction and his Projected Book

Leonardo was in the habit of recording his observations and ideas in note-books which he made for the purpose, sometimes expressing himself in more or less elaborated sketches or drawings, sometimes in writing, sometimes in both. Being left-handed he developed the art of writing from right to left, looking-glass writing as it is now termed, and occasionally a passage is begun on the verso of a folio and continued on the recto, as for instance in AnB, 31v, 31, 30v, and frequently in F. During his lifetime Leonardo no doubt presented occasional sheets of designs to friends and these may account for scattered examples now to be found in various museums and collections. But the note-books, one hundred and twenty in number according to Leonardo’s own statement (QI, 13v,)' were preserved intact, and after his death in France, according to the provisions of his last will and testament, they passed into the hands of Francesco Melzi. Melzi returned to Vaprio in 1550 bringing with him the notebooks, which, until his death in 1570, he cherished as an almost priceless memorial of his friend and master.

For his son Orazio, however, the books had none of the tender associations that made them precious in the father’s eyes and in the course of time they were consigned to trunks and stored under the eaves of the villa as useless lumber, still later to be handed with mistaken generosity to friends who might express a desire for them. The story of their dispersal and final fate has been very thoroughly worked out by Solmi (1910), Uzielli (1896), Seailles (1906) and Piumati (Sa.) and has recently been told for English readers by McCurdy (1923), but the main incidents will bear repetition here.

In 1587 Lelio Gavardi, a tutor in the house of Melzi, abstracted thirteen books, taking them to Pisa. There he showed them to Ambrogio Mazzcnta, a Milanese at that time pursuing legal studies at the University, and Mazzenta persuaded him to entrust them to his keeping that he might return them to Melzi. Melzi at first declined to receive them, but eventually accepted seven, leaving six in Mazzenta’s possession. Two of these later have apparently disappeared; one was presented to Cardinal Federico Borromeo and was deposited by him in the Ambrosian Library of Milan, which he founded in 1603; it constitutes what is now known as Codex C of the Institut de France. Then there appeared on the scene one Pompeo Leoni, whose father, a pupil of Michel Angelo, had placed his talents as an architect and sculptor at the disposal of the King of Spain, Philip II, and was desirous of presenting some of Leonardo’s note-books to his royal patron. The son, consequently, proceeded to bribe Melzi with offers of political preferment and was successful in obtaining possession of the seven volumes that Mazzenta had returned, as well as others, how many is unknown. Later he succeeded in obtaining the three volumes that remained in the hands of Mazzenta’s heirs, and with this precious booty he departed for Madrid.


1 This statement probably dates to about 1514.


In the seventeenth century two volumes of Leonardo’s manuscripts are mentioned in a catalogue of the Royal Library at Madrid, but later these had disappeared. Two others are known to have passed into the hands of Don Juan de Espinas, and both these and the tw r o of the Royal Library w r ere probably part of the collection that Leoni conveyed to Spain. Some other books of the collection were dismembered by Leoni, the pages rearranged and bound together to form a large volume, now known as the Codex Atlanticus, and others of the note-books were similarly treated and bound together in a smaller volume, which was entitled Disegni di Leonardo da Vinci restaurati da Pompeo Leoni.

Leoni died in 1610 and the books passed to his heir Cleodoro Calchi, who sold some of them in Spain and took the rest to Italy, where they were purchased by Count Galeazzo Arconati and presented by him in 1637 to the Ambrosian Library. This bequest included the codices now known as the Codex Atlanticus, codices A, B, E, F, G, H, I, L and M of the Institut de France and the Trevulzian Codex. The last subsequently disappeared from the Library and was replaced by Codex D whose provenence is unknown. Beltrami (Tr.) has suggested that the withdrawal of the Trevulzian codex and its replacement by codex D was by Count Arconati himself, who in the deed of gift reserves the right to transfer to his own house any of the volumes presented by him. The codex Trevulziano as it now is, was purchased in Milan about 1750 by Giovanni Carlo Trevulzio and is now the property of Prince Trevulzio; its history after its disappearance from the Ambrosian Library until its purchase by Trevulzio is unknown. Codex C, as has already been stated, was presented to the Library by its founder, Cardinal Federico Borrommeo. Codex K is probably that presented to the Library by Count Orazio Archinti in 1676, but its previous history has not been traced.

This completes the list of the codices of the Ambrosian Library as they were until 1796. In that year Napoleon Bonaparte in his Italian campaign, as each city yielded to his armies, piratically levied upon its treasures of art and literature, sending the booty so acquired to Paris. From Milan, among other things, he seized the entire collection of Vincian manuscripts, depositing the Codex Atlanticus in the Bibliotheque Nationale and the rest of the codices in the library of the Institut de France. When the allies entered Paris, after Waterloo, they properly ordered the return of the confiscated treasures; the Codex Atlanticus was restored to the Ambrosian Library, but the remaining volumes were overlooked and still remain in the library of the Institut.

Their adventures, however, were not yet at an end. Some time before 1848 Count Guglielmo Libri succeeded in purloining from the library of the Institut a number of pages from codices A and B, and also a small volume of twenty-six pages that formed an appendix to codex B. The pages from A and B were sold by Count Libri to Lord Ashburnham in 1862, by whose name they are now known; in 1888 they passed to the custody of the Bibliotheque Nationale. The appendix to B was sold by Libri in 1865 to Count Giacomo Manzoni di Lugo and was later published in facsimile by Sabachnikoff and Piumati with the title Codice sul volo degli Uccelli; subsequently it was presented to Queen Margherita di Savoia.

For the story of the manuscripts now in the Royal Library at Windsor, the principal records of Leonardo's anatomical studies, it is necessary to return to a consideration of the note-books carried to Spain by Pompeo Leoni. Not all these were brought back to Italy by Calchi. It has already been stated that Leoni separated the leaves of several of the note-books, reassembled them and had them bound in two volumes, the larger of which was the Codex Atlanticus, the smaller the volume entitled Disegni di Leonardo da Vinci restaurati da Pompeo Leoni. In 1623, when a marriage was being negotiated between the Prince of Wales, afterwards Charles I, and the Infanta of Spain, the Prince, accompanied by the favorite Buckingham, visited Madrid for the purpose of carrying on his own wooing. The insolence of Buckingham did much to bring the negotations to an end and, instead of a wedding, a war with Spain ensued. The visit, however, had one good result, the purchase by the Prince of a portion of the Leoni collection, probably the volume of Disegni, and its transference to the Royal Library at Windsor. It was deposited in a special cabinet, together with some portraits by Holbein, and there it remained through the stormy days of the Commonwealth, Restoration and Revolution, safe but forgotten, until it was rediscovered in the reign of George III.

That the volume purchased by the Prince was the second of Leoni’s volumes is indicated by the fact that when the rediscovery was made the book was brought to the attention of John Hunter, then the most outstanding English anatomist, and in his Two Introductory Lectures, published in 1784, he mentions the anatomical drawings with high appreciation and states that they formed a stout folio volume labeled “Disegni di Leonardo da Vinci restaurati da Pompeo Leoni.” A little later they were inspected by Blumenbach and in the Medicinische Bibliothek (III, 1, 1788) Hiniiber gives the further information that the volume originally consisted of 235 large folio pages, some of those at the end of the volume being views of Vesuvius, evidently by another hand than Leonardo’s and dated 1571.

The cover of Leoni ’s volume is still preserved at Windsor, but its pages are now detached and mounted. Indeed, even when Richter (1883) studied the collection, the sheets had been detached and rearranged in nine sets, four of which had for their contents the anatomical drawings, one the studies on the proportions of the body, another studies of the horse, another studies of the geography and hydrography of Italy, while of the other two one was a collection of maps and the other a number of miscellaneous sheets. The total number of pages, according to Richter’s enumeration amounted to 437 and those contained in the four anatomical sets amounted to 266, a number greater than that given by Hiniiber for the Leoni volume, without counting the sheets on the proportions of the body, which numbered nineteen. It is evident, therefore, that the Windsor collection contains many sheets in addition to those of the Leoni volume, and the question of their origin naturally suggests itself.

It is known that two note books of the Leoni collection had come into the possession of Don Juan de Espinas and it is also known that Thomas Howard, the second Earl of Arundel and the father of English art connoisseurs, made endeavors to secure them. Marks (1875) quotes the following from a letter written in 1629 by one Endymion Porter:

"Of such things as my Lord Embassador Sr. Francis Cottington is to send out of Spain for my Lord of Arondell; and not to forget the book of drawings of Leonardo da Vinze which is in Don Juan de Espinas hands.”

And, further, from a letter written by the Earl of Arundel in 1636 to Lord Aston, then Ambassador to Spain —

“I beseech ye be mindful of D. Jhon. de Spinas booke, if his foolish humour change.”

Also there is record in Mary F. S. Harvey’s The Life, Correspondence and Collections of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, of a letter written in 1631 by Arthur Hopton to the Earl, which may or may not refer to the de Espinas books. Hopton, who, apparently, was an agent for Lord Arundel writes —

“The gentleman that is the owner of the booke drawne by Leonardo da Vinci hath bin of late taken from his house by order from the Inquisition, who after some time of restraint at Toledo, was permitted to goe to live at Sevill where he now is. All the diligence that I can use therein is to procure to have advice when either by his death or otherwise his goods are to be sould and therein I will be very watchful.”

There is no direct evidence that the Earl was successful in obtaining the book or books owned by Don Juan de Espinas, but he certainly succeeded in acquiring a number of Leonardo’s manuscripts. Thus the codex in the library of the British Museum, consisting of five hundred and sixty-six pages is labeled “Arundel 263,” and that some of his acquisitions found their way to the Royal Library at Windsor is indicated by the fact that in a collection of engravings by Hollar (1645) there is said to be one of a design by Leonardo da Vinci inscribed “Leonardus da Vinci sic olim delineavit W. Hollar fecit 1646 ex collectione Arundeliana,” and this design is now in the Windsor collection. Whether the British Museum or the Windsor designs engraved by Hollar or both of them represent the note-books once held by Don Juan de Espinas, it is impossible to say. Nothing is known at present as to how they were acquired by the British Museum or the Royal Library, nor is it known whence Lord Arundel obtained them. Solmi (1910) is of the opinion that certain of the Windsor manuscripts were purchased by Charles II in Holland at the sale of the Earl of Arundel’s collection, but whether this be correct or not it seems evident that the Windsor collection consists of the book of Disegni restaurati da Pompeo Leoni with additions from the collection of the Earl of Arundel and probably from other sources. For Richter found at Windsor Castle an inventory prepared toward the beginning of the nineteenth century which lists a drawing by Leonardo that belonged to the Buonfiluolo collection, of which nothing is known except that it was purchased at Venice.

Four other codices may be mentioned to complete the list of the note-books known to be still in existence. One of these is the Leicester codex which was purchased in 1660 from the effects of the sculptor Guglielmo del Porta. Some time prior to 1775 it was acquired by the Earl of Leicester, probably during his residence in Rome. The other three form the Forster collection in the South Kensington Museum. They were purchased by Lord Lytton in Vienna and subsequently passed to Mr. James Forster, by whom they were bequeathed to the Museum in 1876.

It has already been noted that Leonardo collaborated with Luca Pacioli in the Divina proportions to the extent that he contributed the drawings of the regular solids that are figured in the book. In addition there are ornamental capital letters and a drawing of an arch which may or may not have been by Leonardo; but two human heads, crossed by lines that indicate their proportions, are drawn by such a firm, true hand as to warrant the belief that they were Leonardo’s work.


Pacioli’s book was published in Venice in 1509 and it contains a statement that the figure of a man with upstretched arms may be inscribed in a circle whose center is the umbilicus and if the arms and legs be outstretched it may be inscribed in a square. In the first printed edition of Vitruvius published at Venice in 1511 there are two figures illustrating this statement ; they were evidently drawn by Leonardo and the original from which they w T ere copied is now in the Royal Gallery at Venice.

Considerably more than a century was to elapse ere any further reproductions of Leonardo’s drawings were made, and the first to appear after his death was the engraving by Hollar mentioned on page 70. Hollar’s collection of engravings according to Seailles (1906) was first published in Antwerp in 1645 with the title “Variae figurae et probae a Wenceslao Hollar collectae et aqua forti aeri insculptae.” A later edition appeared in London in 1666 and it is possible that the Vincian reproduction w r as included only in this edition, since the date of its execution is given as 1646. 2

Choulant (1852) states that the Comte de Caylus in 1730 published at Paris reproductions of a number of grotesque heads drawm by Leonardo, and later, in 1784, Carlo Giuseppe Gerli published in Milan a collection of designs by Leonardo that are interesting in that the collection includes a number of plates illustrating human anatomy. The collection w T as republished in 1830 with the addition of notes by Giuseppe Vallardi. More important, how r ever, are the reproductions of figures from the Windsor manuscripts published by John Chamberlaine in his Imitations of Original Designs by Leonardo da Vinci (London, 1796), and again included in his larger work, Original Designs of the Most Celebrated Masters of the Bolognese, Roman, Florentine and Venetian schools (London, 1812). Choulant reproduces one of his plates, somewhat reduced in size, but still showing the skill and accuracy of the artist, even the manuscript notes, in the crabbed looking-glass script almost invariably employed by Leonardo, being reproduced, though not entirely satisfactorily. This plate is the verso of folio 4 of the Fogli d’Anatomia A of Piumati and Sabachnikoff, the others apparently are folios from Fogli A or Fogli B, except one which is the verso of folio 3 of the third volume of the Quaderni d’Anatomia, the principal drawing on it being two figures in coitu, an attempt to illustrate the anatomy of coition.

This last plate has a history of its own. It seems highly probable that, as Choulant has suggested, some at least of the plates of Chamberlame’s volume were sold separately. Blumenbach is known to have possessed a copy of the coition plate, probably Chamberlaine’s reproduction, and from it, or from another copy, a lithograph was made in 1830 and published with the title Tabula anatomica Leonardi da Vinci sum mi quondam pictoris e bibliotheca augustissimi Mag nee Britannice H annoveroeque Regis deprompta, venerem obversam e legibus naturae hominibus solum convenire, ostendens (Lunaeburgi, 1S30, 4, sumptib. Heroldi et Waldstabii, typis exscripserunt Fr. Vieweget filius, Brunsvigae) . The artist has taken some liberties with the original, the female figure being supplied with a foot, which is lacking both in Leonardo’s original drawing and in Chamberlaine’s engraving, and there are other minor differences, so that the Lunaeburg plate is a less accurate reproduction of the original than is Chamberlaine’s.

1 Several of the works referred to in this section have been inaccessible and the statements concerning them are made largely on the authority of other authors, notably Choulant.


Choulant (1852) mentions two other collections of plates which include reproductions of Leonardo’s drawings, one by Charles Rogers (London, 1778) and the other by William Young Ottley (London, 1823) and still other reproductions occur in the Great Artists and Great Anatomists: a Biographical and Philosophical Study (London, 1852), by the brilliant but unfortunate Robert Knox. Roth (1907) speaks of some plates which he describes as the proofsheets of a London reproduction made in the seventh decade of the nineteenth century and never published. If this description be correct these reproductions can not be those of either Rogers, Chamberlaine or Ottley, which are too early as to date and all of which have been published. Perhaps a suggestion as to their source is to be found in a statement by Marks (1878) that the Windsor folios were being photographed by a Mr. Stephen Thompson; it is possible that prints were made of these photographs.

In 1883 there appeared the first edition of J. G. Richter’s The Literary ivorks of Leonardo da Vinci Compiled and Edited from the Original Manuscripts, a work that first brought to the knowledge of the world the untold wealth of art, science, invention, literature and philosophy contained in the Vincian manuscripts, and shortly thereafter, in 1890, Duval and Bical published their L’ Anatomie des maitres, with thirty plates of reproductions from the old masters, many of them from Leonardo, mostly from the manuscripts in the Windsor collection, but some from those in the Ambrosian Library and from two sheets in the Royal Gallery at Venice.

All the reproductions hitherto mentioned were by engraving or lithography, but even before Richter’s work appeared the systematic publication of the manuscripts as photographic facsimiles had begun, and today the majority of them have thus become easily accessible. It will not be necessary here to refer to more than those that are especially of anatomical interest, and to these only briefly.

The photographic reproduction of the Windsor manuscript by Mr. Stephen Thompson seems to have remained uncompleted and the first facsimiles to be published were those of the collection in the Institut de France. These were published in twelve volumes (A-M) by Ravaisson-Mollien, the publication beginning in 1881 and extending to 1891. Then followed in quick succession the reproduction by Sabachnikoff of the Codice sul volo degli Uccelli (Rouveyre 1895) and that of the Codex Atlanticus by Piumati, begun in 1894 and completed in 1904, under the auspices of the Regia Accademia dei Lyncei and with the aid of subventions from the Italian government. In the meantime Sabachnikoff and Piumati edited a number of selections from the anatomical manuscripts of the Windsor collection, their first volume, Dell’ anatomia fogli A, appearing in 1898 and the second, Dell ’ anatomia fogli B, in 1901, and in this latter year Rouveyre published a complete set of the Windsor manuscripts in twenty-three volumes. Finally the excellent Quaderni d’ anatomia edited by Vangensten, Fonahn and Hopstock, began to appear in 1911 and reproduced all those anatomical folios of the Windsor collection that were not included in the volumes of Sabachnikoff and Piumati. There are thus two separate editions of the Windsor anatomical folios, that by Rouveyre and that represented by a combination of the volumes of Sabachnikoff and Piumati with the Quaderni. The latter duplicate the Rouveyre edition so far as the Folios related to human anatomy are concerned, but the Rouveyre plates include many folios not represented in the Quaderni — those on the anatomy of the horse for example. Such duplication as there is finds justification, however, in the fact that the Rouveyre edition gives no transcription of the difficult script of the text, the value of the edition being thus greatly lessened, since Leonardo’s looking-glass chirography can be interpreted only at the expenditure of much time and with much vexation of spirit. It may be added that the Trevulzian and Leicester codices have also been reproduced in facsimile, the former in 1891 under the editorship of Luca Beltrami and the latter in 1909 under the editorship of Gerolamo Calvi.

It was long a prevalent belief that Leonardo had written a treatise on human anatomy which had since disappeared, a belief founded upon a statement by Vasari (1912) that Leonardo had “made a book illustrated by drawings in red chalk and outlined with a pen, made from his own dissections and drawn with the greatest diligence.” This, however, is evidently a reference to one of the note-books and not to a treatise on anatomy, and it is to the note-books that Leonardo refers when he speaks (QI, 13v) of having composed one hundred and twenty books and when, in his will, he bequeaths to Francesco Melzi “all and sundry the books which the said testator has at present.”

But it is equally clear that he intended to write such a treatise and indeed sometimes speaks of it as if it were a fait accompli. Thus in E. 3, speaking of the effects of movements in the shoulder joint on the position of the scapula he says “and you will find all the causes of this in the book of my Anatomy,” and again he writes —

“The articulations of the shoulders and of the other moveable members will be spoken of in their places in the Treatise on Anatomy, where will be shown the causes of the movements of all the parts of which a man is composed.” (TP, 264)

But it seems highly improbable that the treatise was ever written, or, at all events, ever completed. It had not been written in 1508, for in that year he was becoming alarmed at the multitude of his notes and their lack of arrangement. On the cover of BM in Leonardo’s handwriting is the following:

“Commenced at Florence in the house of Piero di Braccio Martelii, on the 22d of March 1508; and this makes a collection, without order, composed of many sheets, which I have here copied, hoping later to put them in order in their places according to the matters of which they treat. And I fear that before I make an end of this I shall have to repeat the same thing many times, and so, reader, do not blame me because the things are many and the memory can not retain them and say ‘This I do not need to write, since I have written it before.’ ”

Nor had it been written at the beginning of 1510, for he expresses the hope that he might be able to finish it in the spring of that year (AnA, 17). But he was still carrying on his anatomical studies at Rome in 1513 and 1514, and while he may have worked at his treatise during those years, it seems highly improbable that he could have found occasion for its completion during the troublous years that followed or during his residence in France. There is no doubt that Leonardo planned to write a treatise on Anatomy, but it also seems certain that the plan was never carried into effect. His interests were so wide and so varied that he had no time — probably, too, little inclination — for the drudgery that would have been entailed in the preparation of his notes for publication.

But while there is no evidence that the projected treatise was ever completed, there are many memoranda of the topics that were to be considered in it and of the method in which they were to be presented, and from these some idea of the scope of the work may be obtained. Leonardo’s interest was not in planning or executing small things; his dreams were panoramic and his visions vast. On AnB, 20 there is a lengthy passage, headed by the words “Of the order of the book,” in which he sets forth a general statement as to the scope and plan of the treatise.

“This work should begin with the conception of man and describe the nature of the womb, how the child inhabits it, to what degree it resides therein, the manner in which it is vivified and nourished, its growth, what interval elapses between one degree of growth and another, what expels it from the body of the mother and why sometimes it is expelled from the belly of its mother before the proper time. Then you will describe what members are those that grow more than the others after the child is born, and give the dimensions of a child of one year. Then describe the grown man and the woman and their measurements, the nature of their complexions, colors and physiognomies. Then describe how he is composed of veins, nerves, muscles and bones. This you will do at the end of the book.

“Then represent in four histories four universal conditions of men, to wit: Joy, with various acts of laughing, and represent the cause of laughter; weeping, in various manners with its cause; quarrels, with various movements of killing, flight, fear, ferocity, homicides and all things pertaining to such cases. Then represent fatigue from dragging, pushing, carrying, stopping, supporting and similar things. Then describe the attitudes and movement.

“Then perspective through the agency of the eye and hearing. You will speak of music and describe the other senses. Then describe the nature of the five senses.”

This plan of the treatise was written probably at a comparatively early period of his anatomical studies, for the sheet on which it occurs evidently belongs to the same series as that already mentioned as bearing the date 1489. In other passages in the same series he amplifies and gives further details of the topics he proposes to consider. Thus one finds on AnB, 1 the following list:

“The tendons (nervi) that raise the shoulders, those that raise the head, those that lower it, those that turn it and those that bend it sideways, incline the spinal column, bend it, twist it, raise it. Write on physiognomy.”

And again on the verso of the same sheet (AnB, lv) there is a list of physiological problems that are to be considered.

“The cause of breathing, the cause of the movement of the heart, the cause of vomiting, of the descent of food from the stomach, of the evacuation of the intestines, of the movement of the superfluities of the intestine, of swallowing, of coughing, of yawning, of sneezing, of the numbness of different members, of the loss of sensation of any member, of tickling, of desire and other needs of the body, of urination and similarly of all the natural actions of the body.”

In still another passage (AnB, 20) he says —

“Note which are the important tendons which, when they are cut, do the greatest damage to the animal, and which are of less importance; and this you will do for each member. Note the proportions of the bones one to the other and the use served by each. Different muscles are revealed in the various movements of animals and there are different muscles which in such variety of movements remain hidden; and of this it is necessary to make a long treatise in connection with the knowledge of places injured by wounds and in connection with sculpture and painting.”

And again (AnB, 21) —

“Figure whence is derived catarrh, tears, sneezing, yawning, trembling, falling sickness, madness, sleep, hunger, lust, anger when it acts on the body, fear similarly, fever, disease, where poison acts. Describe the nature of all the members, why lightning kills a man and does not injure him and if the man blows his nose he will not die, because it acts on the lungs. Describe what the soul is. Of Nature, which of necessity makes the vital and actual instruments in the proper and necessary form and positions; how Necessity is the companion of Nature. Figure whence comes the sperm, whence the urine, whence milk; how the food is distributed by the veins; whence drunkenness, whence vomiting, whence gravel and the stone, whence mal di fianco, whence dreaming, whence frenzy by disease; why it is that, the arteries being compressed the man sleeps, why when the neck is pierced the man falls dead; whence come tears, whence is it that in turning the eyes the one follows after the other, of sobbing.”

The problem of the movement of the eyes is mentioned a second time (AnB, 42v) at the beginning of another list of topics, most of which have been already noted, but among which is the following:

“Try to describe the beginning of a man when he is produced in the womb and why an eight months child can not live.”

And another memorandum reads:

“Begin the series with the beginning of the formation of the child in the womb, stating which part begins first and successively placing its parts until birth. And how it is nourished, partly learning from hen’s eggs.” (QI, 12.)

While in still another place he writes —

“Commence your anatomy with the perfect man, then make it on an old and muscular one; then go on removing (parts) by degrees up to the bones. And you wall then do the child, with a drawing of the womb.” (AnA, 16.)

It has been well said that what Leonardo planned was not so much a treatise on human anatomy as an encyclopaedia of man. Aid this encyclopaedia was to have been illustrated with a completeness that had never before been contemplated. For Leonardo, the artist, w r as thoroughly convinced of the superiority of pictorial representation over verbal description as a means of conveying accurate knowledge.

“And ye who wish to represent by words the form of man and all the aspects of his membrification, get away from that idea. For the more minutely you describe, the more you will confuse the mind of the reader and the more you will prevent him from a knowledge of the thing described. And so it is necessary to draw and describe.” (AnA, 14 v; Cf. QII, 1.)

lie therefore purposed to represent every member of the body from several aspects.

“The true knowledge of the form of any body will be from views of it from different aspects. And so to give knowledge of the true form of any member of man, prima bestia infralli animali, I shall observe this rule, making of each member four representations from the four sides. And in the case of the bones I shall make five, cutting them through the middle and showing the cavity of each of them.” (AnA, lv.)


As an afterthought he notes that all the bones should be represented from the four aspects in duplicate, once showing them “Joined to their correspondents as Nature makes them” and again separated so that “the true form of the ends that are joined together” may be seen. Nor was this liberality of illustration to be confined to the bones. He says —

“We will represent the instrumental figure of man in drawings, of which the first three will be the branchings of the bones, i.e. one from in front which will show their positions and forms in the width; the second will be seen in profile and will show the depth of all the parts and of their positions; the third drawing will show the bones from behind. Then we will make three other drawings from similar aspects with the bones sawn, by which their thickness and cavities will be seen; three other figures we will make of the bones entire and of the nerves which arise from the spinal cord and the members to which they are distributed; then three with the muscles and three with the skin, the proportions of the figure being shown; and three of the female to show the womb and the menstrual veins that come to the breasts.” (AnB, 20v.)

If, as seems proper, the memorandum “On the day 2 of April 1489 book entitled De figura humana” (AnB, 42) be interpreted as meaning that on that day Leonardo began to write, or at least to plan, his treatise on anatomy, and if the statement that he hoped to comp ete his anatomy in the spring of 1510 (AnA, 17) also refers to the treatise, it is justifiable to conclude that in the interval Leonardo must have written some portions of it. Indeed it seems exceedingly probable that passages on certain of the folios may have been intended for incorporation in the projected book, and these, though fragmentary and disconnected, are of no little interest.

Such passages occur on folios 2 to 8 of QI, which evidently belong to the later period of Leonardo’s life, probably to the time of his residence in Rome (1513-14). QI, 2 would serve as an introductory chapter; it is headed “Ordine del libro” and, after explaining that the true form and relations of the various parts of the body can only be revealed by numerous dissections, he points out that his illustrations, representing each part from various aspects, will yield the desired knowledge.

“Accordingly, here, by fifteen complete figures, the cosmography of the microcosm (minor mondo) will be demonstrated to you in the same order that was employed before me by Ptolemy in his Cosmography. And likewise I shall then divide the members, as he divided the whole into provinces, and then I shall describe the use of the parts from every side, placing before your eyes the knowledge of the whole form and strength of man, in so far as it has local motion by means of its parts.”

On the margin of this folio is another passage headed “On the hand from within,” but this is evidently a later addition, being written in a darker ink and with somewhat heavier letters. It is a memorandum for his own use as to the figures required for a demonstration of the anatomy of the hand. It is interesting to note, as an indication of the prodigality with which he proposed to illustrate his work, that he planned no less than ten figures of the hand as seen from the palmar surface, and then proposes to similarly figure it from the inner side, the dorsal surface and the outer side.

The verso of folio QI, 2 gives a passage headed “On the muscles which aid in yawning and sighing and in dilating the lung in all its excessive dilations,” and in the margin is a sketch of the muscles by which he supposes the elevation of the ribs is effected, together with diagrams showing how they act. Below the main passage is a second heading “On t lie muscles that draw the ribs downward and replace them in their former position,” but the corresponding passage has not been written.

Folios 3 and 4 are devoted to a consideration of the structure and action of the heart, subjects in which Leonardo was greatly interested, and the verso of folio 4, which, like the recto, is headed “On the heart” ends in a discussion of the significance of the curvature of the diaphragm. Folio 5 is also headed “On the heart” and begins with a short passage, unfortunately not completed, under the heading “If the veins of the lung do not return the blood to the heart, when it contracts in expelling the air.” Leonardo’s thoughts, however, quickly turn back to the diaphragm and the rest of the page is occupied by a discussion of its form and the mechanics of its action. It is doubtful, however, if this passage was intended to be a part of the treatise ; it was perhaps rather a memorandum of data which were to lie elaborated in the final manuscript. But on the verso of the same folio there is a passage under the heading “On the muscle termed the diaphragm and on its uses” which does seem to have been intended for the treatise and it is followed by a passage also with its own heading and discussing the condensation in the larynx of the air expelled from the lungs. On the margin is a note on the effects on the stomach of the contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm and the abdominal walls, a subject already touched upon in the passage on the diaphragm.

Folio 0 is headed by the word “Natomia” and immediately there follows the heading of a passage considering the question whether the position of t he heart changes at death, a question already briefly referred to on folio 4v. On the verso, headed “Anathomia,” the diaphragm and its action on the stomach is again taken up in a series of paragraphs, each with its own heading, and in folio 7, which is headed “Nathomia,” Leonardo passes on from the stomach to the intestines and the movement of their contents, continuing this discussion on the verso. Finally in folio 8 there is a single uncompleted passage under the heading “’What uses do the muscles of the ribs subserve,” an extension of the topic considered on folio 2v.


These seven folios are all characterized by being essentially pages of text rather than of figures, these, when they occur, being merely suggestive sketches and relegated as a rule to the margin of the page. Furthermore the text is arranged in a series of sections, each with a special heading, somewhat after the manner of the anatomical treatises of the period, those of Mondino and Avicenna, though with greater detail. The fact that folios 6 and 7 have for a general heading the word “Anatomia” in one or other of its variants is not without significance, and, furthermore, the folios belong to the later period of Leonardo’s life when he had expressed his intention to set his notes in order.

But it is not only in QI that one finds paragraphs with headings; they occur also in QII, and the folios of this also undoubtedly belong to the later years of Leonardo’s scientific activities, for they form a series uniform as regards the quality and tone of the paper, and one of them bears the date 1513. Two of the paragraphs contained in this Quaderno are especially interesting as representing drafts of introductory sections to chapters of the proposed work. QII, 18v bears the heading “Definitions of the organs ( strumenti )” and for subheading “Discourse on the nerves, muscles, tendons, membranes and ligaments,” what follows being very much in the style of the descriptions of the partes similares found in nearly every treatise on anatomy down to the time of Bichat, 3 but, it is interesting to note, somewhat more detailed than is usually the case and more nearly anticipating Bichat’s recognition of the tissues. QII, 15 has no heading but the paragraph which follows has. It is a general statement of the various forms of muscles to be found in the body, just such a statement as might be expected to introduce a discussion of the musculature. In QIV one also finds a folio (fol. 2) interesting in the present connection, although it is not concerned with anatomical matters. It gives a series of paragraphs, each with a heading, dealing with principles of hydrostatics, and its interest lies in the indication it affords that Leonardo in his later years was endeavoring to get into order his observations in other fields than anatomy. For there is reason to believe that at least folios 1 to 3 of this Quaderno were from approximately the same period as the collection contained in QII.



3 It is worthy of note, however, that the partes similares are not mentioned individually by Mondino "quia earum anathomia non perfecte apparet in corpore deciso, sed magis liquefacto in gurgitis aquarum.” They are mentioned, however, by Avicenna.


All, then, of the projected treatise that has survived is represented by these few fragmentary and unconsecutive passages. It was to have been a book of encyclopaedic contents, of even wider anatomical and physiological scope than the De animalibus of Albertus Magnus and, furthermore, it was to have been illustrated most lavishly, indeed, prodigally. No wonder that Leonardo had doubts as to the likelihood of its being published as he had planned it. For in a folio (AnA, Sv), chronologically of the same series as AnA 17 in which he hopes for the completion of the work in 1510, after a memorandum that the cervical vertebra; should be figured conjoined from three aspects, separated from three aspects and again from below and from above, he proceeds —

"Thus you will give true knowledge of their form, of which it is impossible that the ancient and modem writers would ever be able to give true knowledge without an immense, tedious and confused amount of writing and of time. But by this very brief method of representing them from different aspects, full and true knowledge is given of them. And in order that I may give such a benefit to men, I teach the manner in which they should be reproduced in order, and I pray you, 0 successors, that avarice will not oblige you to make the reproduction in . .

Thus the passage ends, unfinished; Bottazzi (1907) plausibly explains the last sentence as an indication that Leonardo, after the overthrowal of his patron, Ludovico Sforza, despaired of obtaining sufficient funds to adequately publish his great work on anatomy and so bequeathed it to his successors with the injunction that they should not, through fear of the expense involved, curtail in any way the plan he had drawn up.

Probably shortly after Leonardo’s death a collection of memoranda from his manuscripts was compiled by some person unknown, though it has been suggested that it may have been by Francesco Melzi or by another of his pupils, Salai. An imperfect copy of this collection was published in Paris in 1651 by Raphael Trichet Du Fresne, under the title Trattalo della Piitura di Leonardo da Vinci and in the same year a French translation of the same copy was published by Roland F reart, Sicur dc Chambrai, both volumes being illustrated by drawings by Nicholas Poussin. In 1817 Guglielmo Manzi, librarian of the Barbarini Library, which was then united with that of the Vatican, discovered in the Vatican a complete copy of the collection, which he transcribed and published, though not with the editorial exactitude that is desirable, and it was not until 1882 that Heinrich Ludwig published a satisfactory edition, with both the original Italian text and a German translation, under the title Leonardo da Vinci: Das Bach von der Malerei.

As the title given it indicates, it consists for the most of a series of memoranda by Leonardo dealing with the art of painting, with draftsmanship, with the effects of light and shadow, with color contrasts and with perspective. Many of the items it contains can be identified in the original manuscripts now in existence, others may have been taken from manuscripts now lost, and others may have been precepts imparted orally by the master to his pupils. But while it is essentially a treatise on painting, it contains remarks on anatomy and on the proportions of the body, and it is the chief source of information as to the extent of Leonardo’s knowledge of the structure and physiology of plants. These are the reasons why the book is briefly mentioned here, these and the fact that until the publication of Richter’s work it was the only published collection of excerpts from Leonardo’s manuscript notes.


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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, October 25) Embryology Leonardo da Vinci - the anatomist (1930) 6. Retrieved from https://embryology.med.unsw.edu.au/embryology/index.php/Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_the_anatomist_(1930)_6

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