There are gruesome images of the human body as meat, animals sliced to display inner organs, and a morbid obsession with skulls.
These are the most beautiful depictions of skinned corpses, muscles, bones, nerves and intestines ever made; and this is the largest selection -- 87 sheets -- ever displayed. In its way this show reveals as much about the man, his mind and work as the recent Da Vinci blockbuster at the National Gallery.
Leonardo (1452-1519) was able to see with astonishing clarity and, most importantly, translate what he saw into wonderfully delicate, lucid lines. As a result he can show you “The Uterus of a Gravid Cow,” or the enormously complex branching bronchi inside “The Lungs” (both circa 1508), and make you think “What a fascinating, intricate object!”
Sometimes, especially early in his career, Leonardo used his abilities to visualize what he hadn’t seen.
When he relied on conventional wisdom of his time, as with “The Hemisection of a Man and Woman in the Act of Coition” (1490-2), Leonardo got it badly wrong (he put in extra pipework suggesting a spiritual connection from the man’s heart and spine to the woman’s womb).
Later, he increasingly looked at real bodies, which must have been extremely nasty. Dissection of corpses 500 years ago, before chemical preservatives or easy refrigeration, was a squalid, smelly affair. Michelangelo complained he had to give it up because it affected his digestion.
Leonardo himself noted the fear of being “in the company of these dead men, dismembered and flayed and terrible to behold.” Why did he do it?
Obviously, he was driven by an urge to know. Half a millennium ago the roles of artist and scientist were not separated as sharply as today.
Painters and sculptors such as Leonardo and Michelangelo moved easily into fields like military engineering. Some human anatomy was considered a necessary part of a Florentine artist’s training.
Leonardo, however, went further. He wanted to understand everything he might paint, meaning everything in the world -- especially human beings. He slowly moved from painting and sculpture into what we would call science.
Some scholars think that the lost “Battle of Anghiari,” commissioned in 1503 when he was 51, was the last picture he began. His last years were mainly devoted to such projects as a treatise on anatomy.
Some of the sheets on display give an idea of what that painting would have looked like. Leonardo used the powers of observation of a great artist to make discoveries that were astonishingly far ahead of his time.
His investigation of “Blood Flow through the Aortic Valve” (1512-13) describes details of the workings of the heart which weren’t noted again until 1912.
Leonardo’s book was never finished, let alone published. Late medieval medical theory wasn’t able to explain what Leonardo saw -- the circulation of the blood, for example, wasn’t proposed for another century. Consequently, he hit an intellectual wall and gave up, discouraged.
All but one of his surviving anatomical drawings eventually ended up in the Royal Collection, yet no one paid much attention to them for centuries. This exhibition makes clear how extraordinary Leonardo’s voyage into inner space truly was.
For more information, go to: http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/exhibitions
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.