Monday, 23 July 2012

Da Vinci: Connoisseur of corpses

Can you draw a heart? Not an I love you heart, a real ventricles and all heart? No? Maybe because you haven't seen one? I have, but I couldn't do it justice. The peak of my artistic talent came age 5 when I won a Disney drawing competition at school. Apparently my skillz with a crayon perfectly captured the true essence of Goofy. They displayed it in the local gallery. I could have been a contender. Now my stick men look forlornly out from the page, despairing with a wonky eye at my inability to endow them with legs of equal length. Sorry Bert.

One man who could definitely draw a symmetric stickman and a decent heart, though he probably never drew Goofy, was Leonardo Da Vinci. It's a name that conjures images of incredible inventions and divine paintings of deities, but Leonardo was also a connoisseur of corpses. He was an anatomist. Arguably the most accomplished anatomist, not only of his time, but ever. He described structures which weren't mentioned in the medical literature for another two to three centuries. Some of these findings were documented on paper, but others he painstakingly scratched into metal plates capturing every sinew of muscle and snaking nerve. What impresses even more than this raw artistic talent is the scale of his ambition. In the outline for his treatise on anatomy, he planned to trace every blood vessel, document every type of smile, and describe not only the form, but function of almost every structure in the human body.

One of Leonardo's most inspired attempts to understand function came in 1512, when he filled an ox heart with molten wax. From this he made a glass model of the heart and then pumped a grass seed suspension through it. Observing the turbulent movement of this suspension through the aortic valve Leonardo realised that the valve prevented blood re-entering the heart. This breakthrough flew in the face of how the world saw the circulatory system. It was widely believed that the venous and arterial systems were not linked, and that the heart simply pumped blood out and then sucked it back in. Now Leonardo Da Vinci, a genius by any standards, held in his hands evidence of how the heart worked. Surely this was a pivotal moment in medical science? Erm, no. Leonardo's mind, capable of such incredible leaps and bounds, could not release itself from the dogma of the day. Instead he scrabbled around for ways blood could re-enter the heart from the aorta, postulating ideas such as porous valves. Genius fail.

His mind remained shackled to this falsehood until his death in 1519, and with him died his drawings and discoveries. His collection was lost to the world for almost 400 years and by the time it was uncovered the knowledge it contained had been pieced together by Andreas Vesalius and other anatomists. The moral of this tale? Don't live with the results of other people's thinking, publish before you perish and even geniuses lack self belief.

As sad an ending as this is, it doesn't detract from the fact that Leonardo's drawings remain jaw droppingly awe inspiring 500 years on. I doubt anyone will be marvelling at my stickmen in 500 years. Sorry Bert.

If you want to marvel at Leonardo's handiwork, its on display at the Queen's Gallery until October 7th. If you don't live in London, or you don't want to pay the £10 entry fee, their website has a few examples online. Well worth a peek. 

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