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Exhibition of Leonardo's anatomical work reveals a genius centuries ahead of his rivals
A gallery employee poses for a picture looking at a 1509 drawing of the cardiovascular system and principal organs of a woman by Italian Renaissance polymath Leonardo Da Vinci during a preview of an exhibition at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, in London on April 2012. The exhibition presents to the public a large selection of Da Vinci's anatomical drawings. AFP PHOTO / JUSTIN TALLIS.

LONDON.- Leonardo da Vinci’s ground-breaking studies of the human body are to go on display in the largest-ever exhibition of his anatomical work. The exhibition, which takes place almost 500 years after his death, will feature 87 pages from Leonardo’s notebooks, including 24 sides of previously unexhibited material. Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist opens at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, on Friday, 4 May.

To coincide with the exhibition, a special iPad app which reverses and translates the thousands of notes made by the artist in his distinctive mirror writing, launches today, revealing his words to a mass audience for the first time. The app, Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy, brings to life all 268 of Leonardo’s anatomical drawings in the Royal Collection.

Although Leonardo is recognised as one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, he was also one of the most original and perceptive anatomists of all time. The exhibition tells the story of his greatest challenge as he embarked upon a campaign of dissection in hospitals and medical schools to investigate bones, muscles, vessels and organs. Had Leonardo’s studies been published, they would have formed the most influential work on the human body ever produced. Some of his findings were not to be repeated for hundreds of years.

On Leonardo’s death in 1519, his drawings remained unpublished and were effectively lost to the world until the 20th century. Instead, in 1543, the Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius published his treatise, De humani corporis fabrica (‘On the fabric of the human body’) which became the most important work on anatomy ever published – to this day anatomical history is divided into pre- and post-Vesalian periods.

Among the firsts that Leonardo achieved, is the first accurate depiction of the spine in history. This beautiful drawing, dating from c.1510-11, has never been surpassed. Two years earlier Leonardo had sat with a 100-year-old man hours from death in a hospital in Florence, before dissecting him to find the cause of ‘so sweet a death’. In his post-mortem examination notes, displayed for the first time, he gives the first descriptions of cirrhosis of the liver and narrowing of the arteries in the history of medicine. During this dissection, he also drew the appendix – in what is thought to be the first depiction or description of this structure in Western medicine.

From 1511, Leonardo began to focus his efforts on analysing the structure and workings of the heart. Dissecting the hearts of oxen, he produced a series of densely annotated sheets, some of which will go on display for the first time. He drew and described functions that were unknown to anyone else at this time, including what is now referred to as the ‘sinus of Vasalva’ (related to the closing of the aortic value) which bears the name of the next anatomist to describe the feature, 200 years after Leonardo. He came very close to discovering the circulation of the blood a century before William Harvey, but it is with the heart that his anatomical investigations came to an end.

Highlights also include a striking image of a skull sectioned and staring straight out of the page. Produced in 1489, the drawing shows the first human skull Leonardo was able to obtain – prompting him to begin the incredible notebook now in the Royal Collection, known as ‘Anatomical Manuscript B’.

The most iconic and beautiful of Leonardo’s anatomical drawings – a child in breech position in the womb, c.1511 – is also going on display. Leonardo almost never used colour in his anatomical drawings but made an exception here, using red chalk to suggest the potential of the living child. In fact Leonardo based the study on the dissection of a pregnant cow. One drawing, dating from 1509-10, on which Leonardo transcribed all of his discoveries on the inner workings of the body to that date, bears his inky thumbprint and the creases from being folded into quarters to fit into his notebook.

Exhibition curator Martin Clayton said, ‘Leonardo’s drawings are among the finest depictions of the human body ever created. Had he published this work, he would now be known as one of the greatest scientists in history. This exhibition will be the greatest opportunity since Leonardo’s death to marvel at his achievement.’

The pages from Leonardo’s anatomical notebooks were pasted into albums by the sculptor Pompeo Leoni, and one of the albums, containing all of Leonardo’s surviving anatomical studies, arrived in England in the 17th century. The album, known as the ‘Leoni binding’, was probably acquired by Charles II and has been in the Royal Collection since at least 1690. It goes on display for the first time in the exhibition.

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