Anatomy is the foundation of medicine, the basis of its theory and practice. With this science, the process of knowledge of medical disciplines begins. Its comprehension forms the beginning of clinical thinking in medical students. This was perfectly understood by outstanding scientists at the dawn of the formation of medicine as a science. In the Renaissance, anatomy, like other sciences, stepped far forward. A particularly significant contribution to the development of anatomy was made by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) (Habbal 18-19). In particular, thanks to Leonardo da Vinci, earlier primitive knowledge about the structure of the human body was put on a scientific basis.
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The formation of scientific anatomy in Renaissance Europe
The history of medicine as a science that studies the development of medical knowledge and medical activity in various fields of medicine during different historical periods is characterized by certain milestones and key moments when a particular achievement or discovery not only deepens and expands the world perception but also leads to the formation of paradigms and new methodological approaches to the study of various processes and phenomena. In this regard, the history of the study of human anatomy and the formation of its scientific foundations not only occupy a special place in the field of medicine, but also reflect the dynamics in the knowledge of a person as a multidimensional and, at the same time, unique being in his relationship with the environment.
The formation of any scientific theory, concept, the doctrine does not occur at the “zero level,” but is born based on previous teachings, paradigms, and discoveries. In the history of science, the continuity of scientific ideas and the fundamental methodological principles underlying particular scientific approaches are important. This is fully reflected by the history of the creation of the human anatomy scientific foundations.
The first anatomical autopsy of human bodies to study their structure began in the 3rd century in Alexandria. This was done, in particular, by Herophilus and Erasistratus. However, for the first time, a systematic and holistic description of the anatomy of the human body was given by the ancient Roman physician and researcher Galen in his classic work on the designation of parts of the human body (De usu partium corporis humani).
One of the main values of this work is that, in it, the anatomical characteristics of various organs were given in their inextricable connection with physiological functions: all parts of the body are in agreement with each other, that is, they all mutually support each other when doing any action (Rifkin and Ackerman 26). Therefore, in the historical and medical literature, the creation of an anatomical and physiological system by Galen is rightly emphasized.
Galen created a system of ideas about the human body, built on certain principles, the main of which were the following: a) a presentation of material and conclusions based on logical reasoning; b) the use of philosophical teachings on the relationship of the natural environment and human (natural philosophy). He, along with Hippocrates and other doctors of the period of antiquity, began to consider issues of anatomical and physiological nature, taking into account environmental factors (Rifkin and Ackerman 62).
For almost fourteen centuries, the concept of human anatomy, based entirely on the provisions and conclusions of Galen’s anatomy dominated in medicine. One of the main reasons for this “stability” was the religious and philosophical basis of his anatomical and physiological teachings, which, in essence, served him as the main methodological guide in substantiating his ideas and opinions (Clayton 30-31).
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In other words, in anatomical and physiological studies, Galen put at the forefront an experimental observation method based on anatomical dissections and experiments. However, in the explanations of what he saw, he used, first of all, teleological and natural philosophical ideas about the nature of humans. Therefore, the anatomical and physiological doctrine of Galen harmoniously fit into the theological nature of medicine and the scholastic philosophy of the early and classical Middle Ages, which made him one of the indisputable medical “authorities.”
Anatomists of the Renaissance were the first after ancient healers to attempt to study the structure of the human body and the processes occurring in it and laid the foundation for scientific medicine and anatomy. They obtained permission to perform autopsies. Anatomical theaters for public autopsies were created. In the second half of the 15th and throughout the 16th century, there was a significant increase in the interest of representatives of painting in anatomy, which pursued the goal of a more realistic depiction of a person, especially the exposed parts of his body (Rifkin and Ackerman 19).
However, artists’ study of anatomy went beyond the framework of purely anatomical knowledge of the human body and fit into the general idea of the close relationship of humans as a microcosm and the environment, primarily the natural one.
This was facilitated by the revival of interest in the heritage of ancient culture and the understanding of the human as a unique being (Habbal 20). In contrast to the periods of the early and classical Middle Ages, the static vision of the Human as a Divine creation, subject to God’s will, was replaced by a dynamic perception of him as a unique individual in the manifold manifestations of his inner world and spiritual values.
In this regard, the need for practical knowledge of anatomy has prompted many Renaissance artists to observe the processes of anatomical dissections, and some of them directly engaged in the anatomy of bodies. So, Leonardo da Vinci not only personally performed the autopsy but also compiled a series (about 750) of sketches under the general name Anatomical Drawings (early 16th century) (Capra 38-39). Combining science and art in their mission to know nature, he, being actively engaged in anatomy (as a scientist), solved (as an art theorist) the problem of proportion as a link between the scientific study of natural phenomena and their artistic representation.
Contribution of Leonardo da Vinci to the development of anatomy
Leonardo da Vinci’s revealing of general laws of human body structure, topographic relationships between organs, and the identification of functional and structural relationships turned empirical anatomy into a scientific one and made him the founder of systemic, plastic, topographic, and functional anatomy. Excellent knowledge of anatomy helped the artist create world masterpieces, including a portrait of the Mona Lisa with a mysterious smile (Clayton 28). In his anatomical drawings, Leonardo da Vinci first reflected the actual structure of the human body. He noted several features of the children’s and senile organism, proposed his canon of ideal body proportions (Jose 187).
Muscle function, respiration, and heart function were explained by him from the standpoint of mechanics. Leonardo da Vinci, making autopsy the corpses, made a detailed and thorough description of the anatomical structures, immediately sketched everything, supplemented with measurements. He injected vessels, ventricles of the brain, and created organ models to understand their function.
One can rightfully say that Leonardo da Vinci was the first to study the functional anatomy of the motor apparatus. “Leonardo was the best anatomist of his time in the world” ‑ this is how the distinguished English doctor, surgeon, and anatomist Professor William Hunter (1718-1783), a student of the Edinburgh professor of anatomy Monroe and the London professor Douglas appreciated his personality (Capra 63).
Leonardo da Vinci made sections of a stereometric body formed by regular pentagons, and each time received rectangles with the aspect ratios in the golden division. Therefore, he gave this section the name Golden Section, which is still held as the most popular. To fully appreciate the importance of the anatomical works of da Vinci, one must understand that science in his time was constrained by scholasticism and deeply rooted mysticism. With his clear, free from prejudice thoughts, the scientist was far ahead of his contemporaries.
Leonardo described and sketched many muscles, bones, nerves, and internal organs. His anatomical sketches in their accuracy and skill surpass not only his contemporary works but also many subsequent ones. An example is the sketch of the position of the fetus in the uterus with gluteal Previa. The work of Leonardo da Vinci for half a century ahead of the research of the founder of modern scientific anatomy Andreas Vesalius, but remained unknown to contemporaries.
After the death of Leonardo da Vinci, all the encrypted notebooks and manuscripts with a volume of about 7 thousand sheets were inherited by his student, friend, and companion Francesco Melzi, who systematized only what was related to art. The rest in various ways fell into private collections and libraries of Italy and other countries of Western Europe and for a long time was not published (Capra 79). Over time, Leonardo’s manuscripts began to be collected, researched, and systematized, and in the second half of the 17th century, 13 volumes were compiled from his notes and drawings. Thus, the works of Leonardo da Vinci on anatomy gained fame only in the 18th century (after the light of the fundamental work of A. Vesalius), and were published even later.
In Da Vinci’s drawings, for the first time, an image of the frontal, sphenoid, and maxillary sinuses, sesamoid bones of the foot was given. He was the first to correctly determine the number of vertebrae in the sacrum of a person ‑ five (previously, it was believed that the sacrum consists of three vertebrae), correctly described the lordosis and kyphosis of the spinal column, the angle of the sacrum (previously, the sacrum was considered straight, hence the name of the rectum) (Pevsner 217 -219). He tried to study the structure of muscles and joints in a load and close relationship, proposed a classification of muscles according to the size, strength, shape, and nature of tendons and the method of attachment of the bones to the skeleton, expressed innovative ideas about muscle antagonism.
Leonardo da Vinci paid great attention to the quality of the anatomical drawing, which should be as informative and understandable as possible. For the first time, he was offered the image of bones in different angles and projections, and later it began to be used by other anatomists, and this principle underlies modern tomography.
Leonardo da Vinci cannon
Leonardo da Vinci created the so-called canon, based on the works of the Roman architect Vitruvius, author of the treatise Ten Books on Architecture, who lived in the second half of the 1st century BC. Each volume was devoted to separate sections of architecture, construction, and mechanics. In the preface, Vitruvius demonstrated the canonical proportions of the human body (Laurenza 17).
In 1450, the Italian architect Leon Battista Alberti turned to the works of Vitruvius, creating the foundations of the theory of Renaissance architecture. In 1486, the first edition of Vitruvius was published; in 1511, the Dominican priest and architect Giovanni Giocondo made up for the lost drawings. The text of Vitruvius was translated for Leonardo, and he “embedded” his version of the method proposed by the ancient Roman for determining the exact proportions of a male body that fits into a circle and a square (Laurenza 19). The canon of Leonardo da Vinci represents a modification of the ancient square.
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It turned out that if a figure inscribed in a square raises and spreads arms and spreads legs, then it will easily fit into the circle, the center of which is the navel. Leonardo took the head in a unit of measure, laying it in the figure eight times. In the head, he distinguished the cerebral and facial parts, considering them to be the border of the upper eye region. The human body, depicted by the canon of Leonardo da Vinci, has a significant leg length, low navel, somewhat elongated face, especially the nose.
The drawing and explanations for it are sometimes called canonical proportions (Clayton 70). The Vitruvian man “tried” to solve the problem of “squaring the circle.” It is impossible to do it exactly (“squaring a circle is a metaphor for the impossible), but Leonardo da Vinci managed to get as close as possible to this. He was not interested in the geometric relationship between a circle and a square, and the two geometric figures in his drawing are not connected. Based on his results, he corrected the errors in Vitruvius’ measurements, being guided by his empirical knowledge of human dimensions.
The rediscovery of the mathematical proportions of the human body in the 15th century, made by da Vinci and other scientists, was one of the great achievements of the Italian Renaissance. As one can see when examining the drawing, the combination of the arrangements of the arms and legs gives two different positions. A pose with arms spread apart and legs brought together is inscribed in a square. On the other hand, a pose with arms and legs spread out to the sides is inscribed in a circle. In more detailed studies, it turns out that the center of the circle is the navel of the figure, and the center of the square is the genitals.
Subsequently, according to the same method, Corbusier compiled his proportionality scale, Modulor, which influenced the aesthetics of 20th-century architecture. The drawing itself is often used as an implicit symbol of the internal symmetry of the human body and, further, the Universe as a whole. Unfortunately, only subsequent generations recognized Leonardo as a great anatomist, although his anatomical work was ahead of time. The whole history of medicine is inextricably linked with the name of a person whose genius has become a symbol of the Renaissance.
Capra, Fritjof. The Science of Leonardo: Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance. Doubleday, 2007.
Clayton, Martin. Leonardo Da Vinci: The Anatomy of Man. Little Brown & Co, 1992.
Habbal, Omar A. “The Science of Anatomy: A historical timeline.” Sultan Qaboos University Medical Journal, vol. 17, no. 1, 2017, pp. 18-22.
Jose, Antony Merlin. “Anatomy and Leonardo da Vinci.” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, vol.74, 2001, pp. 185-195.
Laurenza, Domenico. Art and Anatomy in Renaissance Italy: Images from a Scientific Revolution. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Pevsner, Jonathan. “Leonardo da Vinci Contribution to Neuroscience.” Trends in Neurosciences, vol. 25, no. 4, 2002, pp. 217-220.
Rifkin, Benjamin A., and Michael A. Ackerman. Human Anatomy: From the Renaissance to the Digital Age. Harry N. Abrams, 2006.