Leonardo da Vinci: Mechanics of Man – Topical Subject & Show

The foetus in the womb, c.1511 courtesy Royal Collection Trust / (C) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013

We take one step forward and two steps back constantly as we progress, just occasionally going a few steps further.

The western world however went to sleep for a long time during the so-called Middle Ages while wars raged, people sought an eye for an eye, hating each other by rote, rather than for any good reason and were jealous of what their neighbours had. All in all if we sum it up humanity brought a whole lot of misery to bear on itself.

Ancient texts were locked up in fortified monasteries in remote valleys all over Europe for centuries so that the knowledge accumulated by the ancients wouldn’t be lost. For that we need to be grateful, not disparaging. Without the vision of a few, the fortunes of the many would have been lost and the lessons remained unlearned.

A new and splendid exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man will be on show at The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse from 2nd August to 10th November 2013 as part of the Edinburgh International Festival.

It is very timely.

The world at large it seems has seemingly re-discovered polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) big time, especially if the Online conversations, the shows, the exhibitions and the brand new television series da Vinci’s Demons, hypothesizing about his early life, are anything to go by.

The muscles of the shoulder, arm and neck, c.1510-11 courtesy Royal Collection Trust / (C) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013

This unique show presented by The Royal Collection Trust will reveal da Vinci’s extraordinary spirit of scientific inquiry, his creative genius and brilliant mechanical inventiveness, while seeking to shed new light on his anatomical works.

They reveal just how far-sighted historically he was and just how relevant his drawings still are today.

The whole idea of the structure of the human body was solidly rooted in religion during his age, and was about reminding people of the beauty of creation and fragility of life.

It remained surrounded by superstitious awe for centuries following Europe’s emergence from the Middle Ages and was associated with the spirit of the departed soul, creating disquieting uncertainty among the general populace.

During the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth century humanity began to free itself progressively from the theological agenda. The term artist was created and it can be safely asserted, though not exaggerated, that a rise in social status went hand in hand with making the distinction.

By transforming artisans into artists their crafts, painting and sculpture, were raised above all others increasing its value both monetarily and intrinsically. It also meant they could receive commensurate recompense for their work in line with the new corporate economic system that had been established in the western world. Artists have to make a living too.

In his lifetime Leonardo da Vinci enjoyed unique fame and celebrity status, which rests largely on him being a ‘Renaissance man'; one whose thirst for knowledge was only exceeded by his desire for more.

Da Vinci had learned how to behave growing up on his father’s family estate. His parents were not married at the time of his birth and his mother, who may have been a slave girl from the Middle East, left to marry an artisan. Her son stayed with his father Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci, a Florentine notary who married a local girl Albiera, who died young.

British Actor Tom Riley, who stars as a young Leonardo da Vinci, in Starz’s Da Vinci’s Demons

His father apprenticed him to artist Andrea del Verrocchio, and he received a multifaceted training in the artes liberales; grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Until the fifteenth century the term artista meant a student of the artes liberales, not a painter or sculptor.

Leonardo recorded only two incidents of his childhood. The first he regarded as an omen; a kite dropping from the sky and hovering over his cradle its tail feathers brushing against his face. The second was when he discovered a cave in the mountains, wanting to explore it but being terrified at the prospect that a ‘monster’ may lurk within its depths.

As a young man Leonardo learned Latin for himself, the key language of traditional learning and he also applied himself to expanding his knowledge of higher mathematics with great tenacity.

He was indeed diligent in all his studies and in 1472 was accepted into the painter’s guild of Florence, although he remained in his teacher’s workshop for five more years producing many superb drawings during this period.

They include his ideas for military weapons and mechanical apparatus, proving his need to understand how to see.

Sight da Vinci believed was a man’s highest sense, as it alone allowed him to enjoy an experience immediately. He applied his own creativity to every realm, his unusual powers of observation and mastery of the art of drawing allowing his dual passionate pursuits of science and art to flourish.

The skeleton, c.1510-11 courtesy Royal Collection Trust / (C) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013

Leonardo apart from being a painter, architect and engineer, was a superb anatomist, perhaps the greatest the world has yet seen to date. What it is doing at last is recognising his genius and beginning to understand just how illuminating he was in an age that was virtually emerging out of a thousand years of silent darkness, at least in terms of the advancement of human knowledge.

Between 1490 and 1495 Leonardo the writer (author of treatises) began. During this period, his interest in two fields—the artistic and the scientific shaped his future work as he gradually gave shape to four main themes that were to occupy him for the rest of his life: a treatise on painting, a treatise on architecture, a book on the elements of mechanics, and a broadly outlined work on human anatomy.

Basically he scorned speculative book knowledge, favouring instead the irrefutable facts gained from his experiences – and from understanding saper vedere – ‘to know how to see’

He set endless goals for himself, and his acknowledged gracious and reserved personality (very different to the TV Show and its ‘creative’ licence about his youthful years) and elegant bearing, meant that he was well-received in court circles.

One of the most interesting periods was perhaps when he entered the service of ‘Cesare Borgia’ in 1502 as ‘senior military architect and general engineer’. Cesare, the son of Pope Alexander VI, was the most compelling and feared person of his age, but Leonardo and he travelled throughout Italy together. Leonardo, twice his age, must have been fascinated by his renowned personality.

While at Cesare’s court he also met the man who believed ‘the end justified the means’  Niccoló Machiavelli, who was a political observer for the city of Florence.

The pen-and-ink drawing of a waterfall and fortified Tuscan hill town was drawn at lightning speed by Leonardo da Vinci on August 5, 1473 Gabinetto Disegno e Stampe degli Uffizi, Florence/British Museum

Da Vinci returned in 1503 to Florence make an expert survey of a project that would attempt to diver the Arno River. The project, considered time and again in subsequent centuries, was never carried out. Centuries later an express highway from Florence to the sea was built over the exact route Leonardo chose for his canal.

As a young man he had dashed off a drawing of a hillside waterfall near his home in Tuscany. It is now considered the earliest pure landscape study in Western art,  the first surviving example by an artist who chose the natural world as his sole subject, rather than as a backdrop to a scene from The Bible or mythology.

Dissected hand: (C) Mark Mobley, West Midlands Surgical Training Centre, UHCW Trust, 2013

While he was in Florence Leonardo da Vinci performed dissections in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, broadening his comprehensive study of the structure and function of the human organism. Being able to paint a picture or to produce a building using principles of perspective, also discovered at this time brought about a revolution, a vividness and realism as never before.

All the skills that made da Vinci the best man in all his fields of endeavour come into play in his extraordinary anatomical drawings.

From architecture he was able to provide knowledge of elevations, plans and sections, from engineering, he gained structure and movement and from painting and sculpture, his observation, perspective and clarity of line and detail were more than impressive.

When working for generous patrons in Milan, Charles d’Amboise and King Louis XII (France occupied Milan at that time) Leonardo studies in anatomy reached a new dimension.

Artist and historian Giorgio Vasari, in his famous historical work about the ‘lives of the artists’ said da Vinci collaborated with Marcantonio della Torre (1481-1511), a famous anatomist from Pavia, to whom he outlined a plan for an overall work that would not only put forward exact, detailed reproductions of the human body and its organs, but also include comparative anatomy and the whole field of physiology.

The bones, muscles and tendons of the hand, c.1510-11 courtesy Royal Collection Trust / (C) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013

Whether it is a fact cannot be confirmed. However all his investigations became driven by one central idea: ‘a conviction that force and motion as basic mechanical functions produce all outward forms in organic and inorganic nature and give them their shape’. He believed that these functioning forces operated in accordance with orderly, harmonious laws.

It is 500 years since Leonardo da Vinci lived, and it’s astonishing to realize that his groundbreaking investigations into the human anatomy, when placed side by side with images prepared using the latest medical technology today, only serve to prove his accuracy.

3D animation of the chest, shoulder and arm (C) Dr Richard Wellings, Warwick Medical School, West Midlands Surgical Training Centre, UHCW Trust, 2013

Da Vinci undertook his own dissections often in the dark of night by candlelight for fear of discovery. Such an activity was still under church prohibition in his day. He dissected more than 30 corpses in various hospitals and medical schools to gain an insight into how the body worked.

Had his discoveries been published at the time it is anyone’s guess about how much further advanced in medical science we might be. Instead they remained among his personal papers and were ‘lost’ to the world for hundreds of years.

It would not be until after his death in the mid 16th century that the study of human anatomy would become legal practice.

A 3D film of a dissected shoulder will be on show in the exhibition alongside da Vinci’s drawings of the shoulder. It will demonstrate clearly the incredible accuracy of his many drawings of the bones, muscles, nerves and tendons of the shoulder joint, seen from every angle and in every position.

The muscles of the shoulder, arm and the bones of the foot, c.1510-11 courtesy Royal Collection Trust / (C) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013

‘This area of the body has a complex range of motion, and Leonardo’s attempts to capture it in two-dimensional drawings are shown to be centuries ahead of his time,’ the spokesman for The Royal Collection Trust said.

Surviving in notebooks from throughout his career are a first collection of material for a painting treatise, a model book of sketches for sacred and profane architecture, a treatise on elementary theory of mechanics, and this the first section of a treatise on the human body.

Leonardo’s notebooks add up to thousands of closely written pages illustrated with sketches. They comprise the most voluminous literary legacy any painter has ever left behind.

21 have survived; these in turn sometimes contain notebooks originally separate but now bound so that all in all 32 have been preserved.

To these should be added several large bundles of documents: an omnibus volume called Codex Atlanticus, which is in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, a historic library in Milan. It was collected by the sculptor Pompeo Leoni at the end of the 16th century.

After a roundabout journey, its companion volume amazingly fell into the possession of the English crown during the 17th century. It was placed in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, where they were bound into a single album as part of a cache of almost 600 drawings.

Charles II probably acquired the album of his drawings later that century as it has been in the Royal Collection since at least 1690. The binding, now empty, will also be displayed in the exhibition.

Finally, there is a manuscript in the British Museum at London, which contains a number of Leonardo’s fascicles on various themes.

3D animation of the lower leg and foot (C) Dr Richard Wellings, Warwick Medical School, West Midlands Surgical Training Centre, UHCW Trust, 2013

Da Vinci always wanted to be ‘true to nature’ and in his Anatomical Manuscript A, which will be on show, contained 18 sheets crammed with more than 240 individual drawings and notes running to more than 13,000 words in his distinctive mirror-writing.

Interestingly this simple childhood trick had become a habit of the artist who was left handed and so mirror writing came easily and naturally. It was not an attempt to keep his research secret, as has often been claimed but more likely because he enjoyed being unconventional.

His writing was destined for eventual publication he hoped, and he urged his followers to see that his works were printed in a margin of one of his late anatomy sketches.

Today anatomists still employ the techniques da Vinci did to analyze the human hand, from the bones, to the deep muscles of the palm, and then on to the first and second layer of tendons.

When recording the muscles of the shoulder and arm he rotates the body through 180 degrees and these will be shown alongside a 3D film to compare the results.

While he based his drawing of a child in the womb on the uterus of his dissection of a pregnant cow, his intuition about how a human child might be disposed inside the womb were entirely correct.

The aortic valve, c.1512-3 courtesy Royal Collection Trust / (C) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013

Perhaps appropriately, Leonardo’s last and greatest anatomical campaign was his investigation of the human heart.

Dissecting the hearts of oxen, he recorded the form of the chambers, valves and coronary vessels.

He made a glass model of the aortic valve to study the flow of blood, but it was not until the 1980s that the pulsing image of a real-time MRI scan allowed anatomists to confirm that Leonardo’s description of the heart’s action had been almost entirely correct.

Leonardo indeed came very close to discovering the circulation of the blood, a century before William Harvey who did – but it was with the heart that his anatomical investigations came to an end.

It took ten years for King Francois 1 of France to persuade Leonardo da Vinci to come and work for him. The ageing genius was in charge of the production of the royal entertainments, which were sumptuous.

When he arrived in France Leonardo brought with him six pictures from different periods of his life including the intriguing Mona Lisa. He recommended grace, softness; cloudy and misty types of lighting and painted the ‘motions of the mind’ including sadness a mood artists of his time rarely depicted.

Leonardo spent the last three years of his life at the French court where he was regarded as a close friend and confident of the King. He was housed in a manor house connected by underground tunnel to the Château where the King had grown up and often came to stay along with his sister Margaret of Navarre.

Some of Leonardo’s pictures, including the Mona Lisa were bought from the sale of his estate by Francois 1 and later became the core foundation of the Royal French Collection.

There was an apocryphal story that Leonardo da Vinci died in Francois 1’s arms, which inspired many artists to paint the scene. However real documents show that King Francis was not at court when his time came.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres: Death Leonardo da Vinci comforted by King Francois 1

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013

Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man

The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse
2 August – 10 November 2013

The cardiovascular system and principal organs of a woman, c.1509-10 courtesy Royal Collection Trust / (C) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013

Other exhibition highlights include the first accurate depiction of the spine in history (1510); Leonardo’s notes from his post-mortem dissection of a 100-year-old man (conducted c.1508), in which he gives the first accurate descriptions of cirrhosis of the liver and narrowing of the arteries in the history of medicine; and the iconic and beautiful study of a child in the womb (c.1511), displayed alongside a 3D ultrasound scan of a foetus.

The Royal Collection is among the largest and most important art collections in the world, and one of the last great European royal collections to remain intact. It comprises almost all aspects of the fine and decorative arts, and is spread among some 13 royal residences and former residences across the UK, most of which are regularly open to the public.

The Royal Collection is held in trust by the Sovereign for her successors and the nation, and is not owned by The Queen as a private individual.


Now entering its 66th year, the Edinburgh International Festival remains one of the most prestigious, innovative and accessible festivals of its kind anywhere in the world. From the very best international opera, ground breaking theatre and electrifying dance, to intimate morning recitals, exhilarating evening concerts, and the spectacular Festival Fireworks

The Edinburgh International Festival 2013 runs from 9 August – 1 September.


Ref: Press Release & Information Royal Collection Trust, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Georgio Vasari Lives of the Artists

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