Anatomy, Zoology and Physiology.
Leonardo’s eminent place in the history of medicine, as a pioneer
in the sciences of Anatomy and Physiology, will never be appreciated
till it is possible to publish the mass of manuscripts in which he
largely treated of these two branches of learning. In the present
work I must necessarily limit myself to giving the reader a general
view of these labours, by publishing his introductory notes to the
various books on anatomical subjects. I have added some extracts,
and such observations as are scattered incidentally through these
treatises, as serving to throw a light on Leonardo’s scientific
attitude, besides having an interest for a wider circle than that of
VASARI expressly mentions Leonardo’s anatomical studies, having had
occasion to examine the manuscript books which refer to them.
According to him Leonardo studied Anatomy in the companionship of
Marc Antonio della Torre “aiutato e scambievolmente
aiutando."—This learned Anatomist taught the science in the
universities first of Padua and then of Pavia, and at Pavia he and
Leonardo may have worked and studied together. We have no clue to
any exact dates, but in the year 1506 Marc Antonio della Torre seems
to have not yet left Padua. He was scarcely thirty years old when he
died in 1512, and his writings on anatomy have not only never been
published, but no manuscript copy of them is known to exist.
This is not the place to enlarge on the connection between Leonardo
and Marc Antonio della Torre. I may however observe that I have not
been able to discover in Leonardo’s manuscripts on anatomy any
mention of his younger contemporary. The few quotations which occur
from writers on medicine—either of antiquity or of the middle ages
are printed in Section XXII. Here and there in the manuscripts
mention is made of an anonymous “adversary" (avversario) whose
views are opposed and refuted by Leonardo, but there is no ground
for supposing that Marc Antonio della Torre should have been this
Only a very small selection from the mass of anatomical drawings
left by Leonardo have been published here in facsimile, but to form
any adequate idea of their scientific merit they should be compared
with the coarse and inadequate figures given in the published books
of the early part of the XVI. century.
William Hunter, the great surgeon—a competent judge—who had an
opportunity in the time of George III. of seeing the originals in
the King’s Library, has thus recorded his opinion: “I expected to
see little more than such designs in Anatomy as might be useful to a
painter in his own profession. But I saw, and indeed with
astonishment, that Leonardo had been a general and deep student.
When I consider what pains he has taken upon every part of the body,
the superiority of his universal genius, his particular excellence
in mechanics and hydraulics, and the attention with which such a man
would examine and see objects which he has to draw, I am fully
persuaded that Leonardo was the best Anatomist, at that time, in the
world ... Leonardo was certainly the first man, we know of, who
introduced the practice of making anatomical drawings" (Two
introductory letters. London 1784, pages 37 and 39).
The illustrious German Naturalist Johan Friedrich Blumenback
esteemed them no less highly; he was one of the privileged few who,
after Hunter, had the chance of seeing these Manuscripts. He writes:
“Der Scharfblick dieses grossen Forschers und Darstellers der Natur
hat schon auf Dinge geachtet, die noch Jahrhunderte nachher
unbemerkt geblieben sind" (see Blumenbach’s medicinische
Bibliothek, Vol. 3, St. 4, 1795. page 728).
These opinions were founded on the drawings alone. Up to the present
day hardly anything has been made known of the text, and, for the
reasons I have given, it is my intention to reproduce here no more
than a selection of extracts which I have made from the originals at
Windsor Castle and elsewhere. In the Bibliography of the
Manuscripts, at the end of this volume a short review is given of
the valuable contents of these Anatomical note books which are at
present almost all in the possession of her Majesty the Queen of
England. It is, I believe, possible to assign the date with
approximate accuracy to almost all the fragments, and I am thus led
to conclude that the greater part of Leonardo’s anatomical
investigations were carried out after the death of della Torre.
Merely in reading the introductory notes to his various books on
Anatomy which are here printed it is impossible to resist the
impression that the Master’s anatomical studies bear to a very great
extent the stamp of originality and independent thought.
The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci
edited by Jean Paul Richter, 1880.