Today, the artist teaches us anatomy. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
We've seen Leonardo da
Vinci's sketches of the human form. We've seen his
sketches of bone and muscle that shape us. Still,
how many of us would call Leonardo an anatomist?
Call him an artist -- an engineer -- a sculptor --
but an anatomist?
Yet Leonardo was the best-informed anatomist of his
day. His inventories of tools always included
"chisel and bone saw, and the sharp knife." He did
some 30 human dissections, not to mention animals.
(He especially liked to study the ox.) He left us
upwards of 800 anatomical drawings.
He also understood that the picture had to be the
medium for recording what he learned. The classical
anatomies of his day described the body in words.
Leonardo said about that,
With what words [can you] describe the whole
arrangement ... the more detail you write
concerning it, the more you will confuse the mind
of the hearer.
So he cut and drew. He had no illusions
about the work. He said,
... you may perhaps be deterred by natural
repugnance, and if this does not prevent you, you
might be deterred by fear of passing the night
hours in the company of these corpses, quartered
and flayed and horrible to behold.
Leonardo created a new pictorial vocabulary. At
first, the body -- especially its inner contents --
seems undrawable. He invented cutaway sections. He
made his own X-rays by laying semitransparent
tissue over underlying organs and bone. Leonardo
the artist resurrected the dead -- gave them new
life -- even as Leonardo the surgeon cut them into
He was first to identify the sinus cavities. He was
first identify the heart as a muscle. He was first
to see that it was four-chambered. He showed us
that every muscle had another muscle working in
apposition to it. He anticipated the existence of
microscopic capillaries 150 years before Harvey
did. He used casting to determine the shape of
And I go back to that statement about horror and
repugnance. Leonardo was driven by his art -- by
his sense of beauty. Leonardo understood that
beauty lurks within ugliness. He saw beneath the
surface. He also trumpets the coming of a new age
of empirical science when he warns us that,
If you wish to demonstrate in words ... do not
meddle with things appertaining to the eyes by
making them enter through the ears, for you will be
far surpassed by the painter.
So go to your bookshelf. Go to your
library. Let Leonardo's art show you what he saw. It
is a majestic view -- those flayed bodies laying bare
the corporeal stuff that forms us. He shows us the
fragile tissue that shapes our actions and carries
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Belt, E., Leonardo the Anatomist. New
York: Greenwood Press, Pubs., 1969. (Original
printing, Univ. of Kansas Press, 1955.)
Nuland, S.B., Doctors. New York:
Vintage Books 1989, pp.68-70.
Clark, K., Civilisation, A Personal
View. New York: Harper & Row, Pubs.,
1969, Chapter 6, The Hero as Artist.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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