Leonardo da Vinci - the anatomist (1930) 1

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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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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 - The Anatomist

Chapter I Introductory

Much has already been written concerning Leonardo’s standing as an anatomist; indeed, each successive publication in facsimile of his note-books has called forth reviews and critiques. But now that practically all his manuscripts that deal with anatomical matters have been made accessible in facsimile, a more certain estimate of his achievements as an anatomist and of his place in the history of anatomy may be made.

In attempting to frame such an estimate many factors must be taken into account. No piece of work can be isolated from its environment and judged of its merits solely by modern standards. What had already been accomplished along similar and cognate lines, the extent to which the knowledge of this was available, how far the results manifested an emancipation from the obscurantism inherent in the intellectual tendencies of the period, how great was their influence on later progress in the same field of study, all these are questions that must be considered, as well as the thoroughness and accuracy of the work itself. Indeed, its title to originality both in fact and method and its consequences must be considered of greater importance than even its accuracy in detail; for a new viewpoint, a new method of investigation, may do more for scientific progress than an abundant recital of mere facts.

Leonardo lived in a time of great intellectual awakening, when the literary renaissance inaugurated by Petrarca and Boccaccio in the fourteenth century was at its height. One must inquire, therefore, how far he was an expositor in science of the new movement, how far he was a forerunner of the scientific renaissance that came to maturity with Copernicus and Galileo, how far he emancipated himself from the blind reliance on authority that had held anatomical investigation in thrall for over twelve centuries. His span of life almost paralleled that of the great printer-publisher, Aldus Manutius; to what extent did he avail himself of the older literature made accessible by the Italian printers and how far did his observations surpass in accuracy and detail those of the authors known to him? He was primarily a great artist and his early training was in the atelier of an artist; to what extent were his anatomical studies limited by their application to the problems of his art, or did he surpass such limitations and find in the structure and functions of the human body scientific problems independent of their applications? These are some of the questions to be considered.

The majority of the writers who have considered his anatomical studies agree in according him a high place as an anatomist, Holl (1905) even bestowing upon him the title of “auctor statorque anatomise humanse.” But while the general conclusion has been most favorable, eulogistic indeed, there have been those, notably Roth (1007), who have failed to find in Leonardo’s work that almost superexcellence that others have ascribed to it and, while admiring the artistic skill shown in many of Leonardo’s sketches, have criticized them unfavorably as regards their scientific accuracy. In Roth’s opinion Leonardo was an artist who wished to understand the form and movements of the body; he was not a scientist, but merely a dilettante in anatomy. He approached anatom y from the artistic rather than from the scientific standpoint and “Ein Arzt ( i.e . Vesalius) w r ar es, der moderne Anatomie schuf, nicht ein Kiinstler.”

Roth’s unfavorably critical attitude may be understood when it is recalled that he is the author of an authoritative biography of Vesalius, usually regarded as the founder of modern anatomy. Like many biographers he seems to have felt that he held a brief for a client, and his criticism of Leonardo was called forth by the appearance of two papers accusing that client of plagiarism. One of these papers was by von Toply (1903) who accuses Vesalius of having appropriated from Estienne (Stephanus) without acknowledgment, the figures of the skeleton published in the De fnbried corporis humani (1543); this does not concern Leonardo da Vinci and need not be given further consideration here, except to state that Roth (1905) has brought forward strong evidence to show that Vesalius’ figures antedated and were probably the inspiration of those of Estienne.

The other accusation does, however, involve Leonardo and is more serious. It was made by Jackschath (1902, 1902 1 ) and is to the effect that the De fabried corporis humani, generally ascribed to Vesalius, was in reality the work of Leonardo, representing the proposed treatise of anatomy mentioned several tunes in his note-books, but of whose publication there is no record. No wonder that Roth arose in his might to refute such an accusation and he was ably assisted by Forster (1904) and Holl (1905). Jackschath based his contention on several points, some of which are inconclusive and others erroneous. He considered it unlikely that a man of Vesalius’ age when the De fabried was published (28 years) could have written such a book, but before 1543 Vesalius had been studying anatomy assiduously for three years at Paris under Sylvius and had held the chair of surgery at Padua for five years. Jackschath claimed that the symbols used on Vesalius’ plates were the same as those employed by Leonardo and were characteristic, but Forster’s careful study of these symbols demonstrated the claim to be without foundation. Further argument was based on the similarity of the descriptions of the eye given by the two authors ; both, it is true, described the lens as occupying the center of the eyeball, but this merely implies that both Leonardo and Vesalius had accepted as correct the description of the eye in the Arabistic texts of the day. Finally, to mention one other instance of the evidence Jackschath sets forth in support of his theory, it is held that the De fabrica must have been written before 1500, since there is no reference in it to sixteenth century anatomists. But as Roth points out, while Vesalius does not mention them by name, references to statements by Berengarius, Dryander and Guinterius are to be found in his book.

Leonardo’s proposed treatise on anatomy will be considered later; here it need only be mentioned that he has given a detailed plan of how he hoped to present the subject in that book, but that plan is not followed in the De fabrica, nor does it seem possible that Leonardo, unfamiliar and unskilled as he was in medical affairs, could have written that book. It is difficult to understand, too, why if Stephen von Calcar copied the illustrations for the De fabrica from Leonardo’s drawings, he was allowed to represent the curvatures of the spinal column and the inclination of the pelvis so erroneously, when essentially accurate drawings of the same parts by Leonardo were available. And furthermore there is the statement of the scholarly founder of Caius College, Cambridge, that while he was studying at Padua he lived for eight months in the same house as Vesalius “what time he wrote and drew his books de fabrica humani corporis.”

In short the evidence against Jackschath’s views is so strong that it is difficult to take them seriously. There is a possibility that Vesalius may have heard of Leonardo’s drawings after he reached Italy; he may even have seen them, but there is no evidence that he did so. He was already an experienced anatomist and convinced of the necessity for a reform in anatomical instruction when he went to Padua in 1537; that reform was the result of the publication of the De fabrica. Leonardo was working along the same lines, but his great work, so far as is known, never reached fulfilment, and his anatomical studies remained unknown to the scientific world for three centuries. Vesalius was undoubtedly the founder of modern anatomy — Leonardo was his forerunner, a St. John crying in the wilderness.


Historic Disclaimer - information about historic embryology pages 
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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, August 4) Embryology Leonardo da Vinci - the anatomist (1930) 1. Retrieved from https://embryology.med.unsw.edu.au/embryology/index.php/Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_the_anatomist_(1930)_1

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