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Books of the Body: Leonardo's Anatomy

In 1489, while in Milan, Leonardo produced spectacularly detailed drawings of the human skull. These were completed at the same time that Leonardo was studying and sketching designs for the tiburio of Milan’s cathedral. He sketched the skull as an architect would design a dome: in plan, section, and elevation. This ability to imagine the interior of the body from multiple points of view set him apart as an artist-anatomist. Indeed, he advised aspiring anatomists to draw the body from at least three, but preferably nine, different perspectives.

Medieval anatomical manuscripts, sometimes illustrated with depictions of the major systems of the body, were transformed by printing. In 1491, a Latin edition of Fasciculus medicinae, the foundational textbook on anatomy commonly attributed to Johannes de Ketham, was printed in Venice with crude woodcuts derived from medieval illustrations. Leonardo wrote in his notebooks that were he ever to publish a book on anatomy, the imprecise and clunky quality of woodcut illustration would not suffice—it did not offer the sharpened nuance of drawings.

Leonardo studied Ketham along with anatomical treatises by Mondino, Alessandro Benedetti, and possibly Gabriele Zerbi. Between 1508 and 1511, he seems to have observed, dissected, and drawn in collaboration with Marcantonio della Torre, a Paduan-trained professor of anatomy in Pavia. Leonardo’s strong emphasis on visual renditions of the body resonated with the next generation of anatomists, particularly Andreas Vesalius, whose influential anatomical treatise De humani corporis fabrica (1543) gave the Renaissance body its iconic look with woodcuts created in Titian’s studio.

[Alexandria R. Tsagaris]

Johannes de Ketham, ca. 1415–1470

The Fasciculus medicinae of Johannes de Ketham Alemanus: Facsimile of the First (Venetian) Edition of 1491

Birmingham, Alabama: The Classics of Surgery Library, 1988

Lane Medical Library QM21 .K48 1988

The Fasciculus medicinae, a collection of ancient and medieval medical knowledge, is attributed to the imaginary Johannes de Ketham—a name possibly inspired by the Viennese medical professor Johann von Kircheim. This book assembled centuries-old practical topics for physicians, including uroscopy, medical astrology, bloodletting, the treatment of wounds and plague, and women’s health. The 1494 Italian translation of the Fasciculus, also printed by the de’ Gregori brothers and edited by Sebastiano Manilio, features many Renaissance innovations. With its use of the vernacular, the classical style of the figures, and the addition of a translation of Mondino’s Anatomy and its famous opening illustration of an academic dissection, this volume appealed to a wide array of readers. Although Leonardo owned the Latin version, he almost certainly knew the vernacular edition, especially its revised image of the dissected female body. The uterus—the concealed, hidden organ of human origin—figured prominently within the all-male world of medicine and anatomical study, as Leonardo’s pen-and-ink drawing known as the “Great Lady” (ca. 1509–1510) attests.

Is the “Great Lady” a composite of human, bovine, and fetal anatomy representing a synthesis of Leonardo’s many anatomical inquiries? Or is it whimsical fantasia? The presence of uterine horns on Leonardo’s woman recalls the Fasciculus, making it difficult to deny the likelihood it inspired the “Great Lady.” Leonardo privileged nature as the artist’s standard and warned against human influences. This woodcut was presented as an innovative image created “from nature.” Did this encourage him to use it as the template for his “Great Lady”?

[Cassy Christianson]

Alessandro Benedetti, ca. 1450–1512

Anatomice, sive, De hystoria corporis humani

Strasbourg: Johann Herwagen, 1528

Lane Medical Library E21H .B46 1528

With an emphasis on humanist rhetoric rather than illustrations, the Anatomice offers practical medical knowledge in the form of pure textual description. Originally printed in Venice in 1502 by Bernardino Guerraldo, this 1528 edition, printed in Strasbourg, features italic type with roman capitals.

The humanist writer Benedetti served as physician and surgeon to the army of the Venetian Republic and was a professor at the distinguished University of Padua. Although influenced by the writings of Aristotle and Galen, Benedetti strictly held that medicine must look to nature, especially through dissections; he was also more rigorous in the use of ancient medical authorities. Based on his anatomical knowledge, gained from performing many dissections and autopsies, Benedetti corrected various Aristotelian errors, such as placing the origin of most nerves in the brain rather than the heart.

By forgoing illustrations completely, Benedetti asserts his stance on the superiority of humanist eloquence over the painter’s artistic renditions for the transmission of knowledge. In the last paragraph of the Anatomice, Benedetti maintains that his vividly written descriptions generate imagery in the mind of his reader better than visual representation. Leonardo’s polemic in the Paragone contends that, contrary to Benedetti’s claim, the painter will ultimately surpass the poet. Restating this argument in his anatomical notebooks, Leonardo insists that a writer’s words alone are inadequate to describe the complexities of the body. His finely detailed anatomical atlas of the human body was the only work he singled out for publication. Could it be that Leonardo envisioned printing his own illustrated anatomical treatise as a direct rebuttal to Benedetti?

[Cassy Christianson]