Decoding Da Vinci

Vayu Naidu walks into The Anatomist — an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace — and finds that Leonardo’s poignant drawings see the art in the marvel of the human body.

Updated - September 22, 2012 05:38 pm IST

Published - September 22, 2012 05:21 pm IST

The skull sectioned, c.1489Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2012.

The skull sectioned, c.1489Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2012.

Who said mythology is dead? We watched Mo Farah become 5000 m Olympic, World and European champion, making him the world’s fastest long-distance runner. Usain Bolt, sprinting with the lightning speed of Indra, and Thor win gold with the perfect body for a sprinter. For an athlete that’s invaluable. Then there was Andy Murray beating his valiant opponent like Sir Gawain his Green Knight. You knew what it meant to strike at the heart of gold the way Queen Boadicea did, when Jessica Ennis threw the javelin and win all the heptathlon events, crowning GB at the London 2012 Olympics. That was just the “warm up” for us to see the Paralympics. Too rich with mythological allusions?

Among the live audience of 80,000, and multiple nationalities watching at the stadium, and million others nationally and worldwide, the triumph was not about celebrity and stars, but the human body. The human body — man and woman — observed as potential, trained and disciplined to unleash its optimum power, unaided by any chemical, political, or social substances, in the spirit of sport. That is the mythology of the Olympics in principle, and it continues to trade — as ethic and brand.

However, the inventiveness of the human body, is not a myth. The genius of understanding the sources of the human body for its individual uniqueness and potential while studying the “species” must be owed to Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519); the man who made us smile looking at Mona Lisa who continues to smile at us, enigmatically. The revelation is the discipline he undertook to reveal the musculature, bone structure, veins and blood circulation, and the “spirit” that stirs within the human to make a smile, among other manifestations of emotions.

About 600 drawings

For the first time, a collection of 600 or more drawings of a research in human and animal anatomy is displayed in an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace: Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist. Curated by Michael Clayton this is a meticulously archived exhibition rich in scientific detail with the chronology of western medical thought contemporary to Leonardo’s time and our own, substantiated by medical practitioners. The 13,000 words of notes annotating the drawings in Leonardo’s mirror writing (attributed to being a left hander) reveals not only a master draughtsman, but an artist examining the blood and guts of his own kind.

The Renaissance preoccupation was with the ideal human body as an expression of universal harmony. Five hundred years ago western medical science had no understanding of reproduction, circulation, and the digestive system. Leonardo decided to explore a study of anatomy for its own sake, as well as to inform the emotive impulse behind the action of his characters on the canvas. His research outline in 1489 sets out the premise of anatomical research — conception of human from birth to adult integrating stages of development and distinction between man and woman; the emotions beginning with laughter and what causes it with different ways of laughing, weeping, fighting, flight. These emotional impulses inform the “Attitudes” of movement. The purpose — “Effects” treating perspective through function of the eye; “on hearing, I shall speak of music; and describe the other senses”.

Leonardo dissected some 30 bodies and this was possible as bodies of executed criminals, deceased homeless and beggars were gathered for medical study in universities even then. But as artists, dissections had to be supervised. His drawing of the skull having sliced it vertically and the right half frontally reveals the juxtapositions of CAT drawings and scans. In 1508-09, having gained reputation to conduct autopsy, Leonardo recounts in his notes, how he sat with a man, over a hundred years, who felt nothing wrong with his body other than weakness, and then passed slowly “into a sweet death”. He then goes on to provide the first clear description of coronary vascular occlusion and arteriosclerosis in the history of medicine.

1510-1511, Leonardo’s graphic drawings of the curvature of the spine is the first of its kind in “exploded view” showing how the vertebrae sit together. His drawings manifest his renaissance learning — of engineering, architecture, and his inventive way of seeing the human body in these terms, but endowing it with the humanity that makes our blueprint so unique. The trajectory of this story takes Leonardo continuing research amid commissions, wars, and the inevitable feeling of a closure of time. His papers were copious and disorganised, and following his death were bequeathed to his young assistant Francesco Melzi. By 1590, the papers were sold to sculptor Pompeo Leoni who preserved the notebooks and mounted the loose drawings into an album which can be seen in the exhibition. In spite of Leonardo losing the posthumous claim of the first anatomist stretching the frontiers of the traditional system of medicine, these drawings have an independent significance of rigour, training the eye to paint “true to nature” drawing on resources that come from within. The exhibition has samples of current teaching tools of the anatomy to demonstrate the verisimilitude. But the drawings have a poignancy and dignity that sees the art in the marvel of the human body. But this is not some treat for the exclusive.

Art-Science wedlock

Leonardo’s notebooks are an iPad app that can be downloaded via the iTunes App Store — Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy. The app includes interactive 3D anatomical modes, pinch-zoom functionality and interviews with experts on Leonardo’s work and history of medicine which makes both the exhibition a vital insight into the marriage between art and science, but importantly as an educational illustrating the inventiveness of art, scientific content and computational graphics.

The drawings stimulate a living mythology of the human body as a universe of trillions of networks between organs, vessels, nervous and skeletal systems among others. It is devoid of sentimentality and dignifies the subject. The enigma is that only an artist can place its void as there is nowhere to locate the “spirit and soul”; yet the living being is animated and made complete by them. Perhaps that will be left for us to decipher as cheering crowds. So from GB to Brazil, here’s the torch Rio, carry it on for 2016!

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