Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man at The Queen’s Gallery, Holyroodhouse

By Culture24 Reporter | 06 September 2013

Exhibition preview: Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man, The Queen’s Gallery, Holyroodhouse, until November 10 2013

A photo of a scan of a human hand next to anatomical drawings of a hand
Compare and contrast: A 3D film of a dissected and plastinated hand and the bones, muscles and tendons of the hand as seen by Leonardo da Vinci (circa 1510-11)© Mark Mobley, UHCW Trust, 2013 / Royal Collection Trust / Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013
Despite being dubbed a polymath, the attention afforded to Leonardo da Vinci’s artistic genius far overshadows his myriad superhuman abilities in other fields.

His studies of the body – drawn out here in 18 sheet manuscripts produced between 1510 and 1511, accompanied by 240 drawings and 13,000 words of notes – underline his incredible perceptions of the anatomy, illustrating nigh-on every bone in the human body and many of the major muscle groups.

To prove their astonishing accuracy, they’re accompanied by a range of images from 21st century medical imagery – many of them appearing to be trumped by da Vinci, who had all but visualised modern scanning techniques and 3D computer modelling by the time of his death 500 years ago.

“The anatomical accuracy of Leonardo’s drawings has rarely ever been surpassed,” observes Peter Abrahams, a Professor of Clinical Anatomy at Warwick Medical School who has collaborated on an exhibition which includes numerous previously unseen examples.

“I still use them to teach surgeons and medical students today. His use of cross sections and slices to show deep internal structures within the body foreshadowed the modern techniques of CT and MRI scanning.

"In many ways Leonardo predicted the 20th-century revolution in various medical imaging techniques.”

Da Vinci’s research was initially fuelled by a determination to keep his paintings true to nature, but he eventually dissected more than 30 human corpses during a six-year period, filling tomes of notebooks in an illustrated treatise.

They were lost for centuries following his death in 1519, only resurfacing in England in the 17th century, bound into a single album and thought to later have been acquired by Charles II.

A post-mortem dissection of a 100-year-old man describes cirrhosis of the liver, and a study of a child in the womb, based on a dissection of a pregnant cow, accompanies a 3D ultrasound scan of a foetus.

Using an “exploded view” based on his skills in architecture and engineering, da Vinci explained movement and structure as if explaining a jigsaw.

The works have been in the Royal Collection since around 1690, and are on display as part of the Edinburgh International Festival.

  • Open 9.30am-6pm. Admission £3.15-£6.25 (free for under-5s, family ticket £16, joint ticket with Palace of Holyroodhouse £8.80-£15.50, family ticket £40.80). Follow the gallery on Twitter @britishmonarchy.

More pictures:

A photo showing a scan of the human spinal cord against anatomical drawings
The vertebral column© Primal Pictures / Royal Collection Trust / Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013
An image of the human chest against anatomical drawings
The chest, shoulder and arm© Dr Richard Wellings, UHCW Trust 2013 / Royal Collection Trust / Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013
An image of a section of the human shoulder scanned against anatomical drawings
A dissected and plastinated shoulder and da Vinci's view of the muscles of the shoulder© Mark Mobley, UHCW Trust / Royal Collection Trust / Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013
An image of a scan of the human skeleton against an anatomical drawing of it
The skeleton© Richard Wellings, UHCW Trust 2013 / Royal Collection Trust / Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013
An image of a scan of the human heart against anatomical drawings documenting it
An MRI scan of a beating heart and da Vinci's view of the aortic valve (circa 1512-1513)© Dr Richard Wellings, UHCW Trust 2013 / Royal Collection Trust / Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013
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