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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Anatomy in the Renaissance

Italian Renaissance artists became anatomists by necessity, as they attempted to refine a more lifelike, sculptural portrayal of the human figure. Indeed, until about 1500–1510, their investigations surpassed much of the knowledge of anatomy that was taught at the universities. Opportunities for direct anatomical dissection were very restricted during the Renaissance. Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists states that the great Florentine sculptor, painter, and printmaker Antonio Pollaiuolo (ca. 1432–1498) was the “first master to skin many human bodies in order to investigate the muscles and understand the nude in a more modern way.” Giving credence to Vasari’s claim, Pollaiuolo’s highly influential engraving of the Battle of Naked Men (17.50.99) displays the figures of the nude warriors with nearly flayed musculature, seen in fierce action poses and from various angles.

The later innovators in the field, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) and Michelangelo (1475–1564), who are known to have undertaken detailed anatomical dissections at various points in their long careers, set a new standard in their portrayals of the human figure (24.197.2). The patrons commissioning art in this period also came to expect such anatomical mastery. In the words of the Florentine sculptor Baccio Bandinelli (1493–1560), who was trying to impress a duke to hire him, and who also appears to have run an academy for the teaching of young artists, “I will show you that I know how to dissect the brain, and also living men, as I have dissected dead ones to learn my art” (17.50.16-35). Circumstantial evidence suggests that a number of other artists also attempted direct dissections. Some later great masters produced écorchés, studies of the peeled away or ripped apart forms of muscles, to explore their potential for purely artistic expression (49.95.181; 1996.75). The majority of artists, however, limited their investigations to the surface of the body—the appearance of its musculature, tendons, and bones as observed through the skin—and recorded such findings in exquisitely detailed studies after the live nude model (36.101.1).

To their enormous credit, Italian Renaissance artists also pioneered a consistent vocabulary of anatomical illustration with which new discoveries could be precisely recorded. Until the 1490s, the most authoritative anatomical treatise was still crudely illustrated. This was a compendium entitled the Fasciculus medicinae to which the name of Johannes de Ketham is usually attached as author. The Latin edition of “Ketham,” published in Venice in 1491, includes woodcuts in a traditional medieval style representing a “Urine Chart” as well as the main medieval anatomical figures (the “Blood-Letting Man,” the “Zodiac Man,” the “Gravida” or pregnant woman, the “Wound Man,” and the “Disease Man”). However, an edition of “Ketham” published in the Italian language almost three years later (38.52) incorporates a new Renaissance figural style inspired by Giovanni Bellini, Andrea Mantegna, and Antonio Pollaiuolo.

Leonardo da Vinci, who is without doubt the most significant artist-anatomist of all time, first undertook a series of detailed studies of the human skull in 1489, borrowing from the architect’s rigorous technique of representing three-dimensional forms in plan, section, elevation, and perspectival view. He thereby invented a new vocabulary for the history of scientific illustration. Leonardo produced his most precisely drawn dissections of the human body in 1510–11, probably working under the direction of the young professor of anatomy, Marcantonio della Torre, from the University of Pavia. None of Leonardo’s discoveries were published in his lifetime. However, his methods of illustrating the dissection of muscles in layers, as well as some of his “plan, section, and elevation” techniques, seem to have become widely disseminated, and were incorporated in the first comprehensively illustrated Renaissance treatise, Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica, published in Basel in 1543 (53.682). Some of Vesalius’ images of partially dissected bodies, set dramatically in a landscape, appear to have been designed by Titian’s pupil, John of Calcar (1499–1546/50).