Leonardo da Vinci drawings on display in Edinburgh

THEY are the intricate sketches produced by one of the world’s greatest artists, after he personally dissected 30 corpses.
The foetus in the womb c.1511, one of Leonardo da Vinci's anatomy drawings on display. Picture: HemediaThe foetus in the womb c.1511, one of Leonardo da Vinci's anatomy drawings on display. Picture: Hemedia
The foetus in the womb c.1511, one of Leonardo da Vinci's anatomy drawings on display. Picture: Hemedia

• Anatomy drawings by Leonardo da Vinci have gone on display in Edinburgh

• 500-year-old sketches will be presented alongside modern medical imagery to demonstrate accuracy of drawings

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Now, 500 years after Leonardo da Vinci produced his detailed drawings of the human body, they have gone on display in Edinburgh - alongside 21st century medical imagery showing how uncannily accurate he was.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse has scored a huge coup with the first ever exhibition comparing the pages from his anatomical notebooks with modern-day MRI and CT scans, as well as 3D computer modelling, to startling effect.

It tells how the artist began researching the human body and persuading hospitals and medical institutions to let him work with human corpses to try to ensure his paintings were as realistic as possible - only to develop an intense interest in anatomy.

He was to fill hundreds of pages of his hundreds of pages of his notebooks with detailed studies of the organs and vessels, the bones and muscles, and the heart, the like of which had never been seen before.

But they were almost lost forever as they were buried amidst a mass of disorganised personal papers which were bequeathed to a personal assistant after his death in 1519.

Although the artist worked on the drawings between 1507 and 1513 it was not until the turn of the 20th century (between 1898 and 1916) that the anatomical papers were finally published.

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The exhibition, part of the Edinburgh International Festival, reveals that had the artist’s papers been published at the time they would almost certainly have changed understanding of the human body across Europe. Highlights including his post-mortem dissection of a 100-year-old man.

Although some of the drawings - which have been held in the Royal Collection since the late 17th century - went on display in an exhibition in London last year, they have never been seen in Scotland before and the exhibition - a collaboration with Warwick University’s medical school, has been created for the festival.

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The centrepiece of the exhibition is an anatomical manuscript onto which the artist crammed some 240 individual drawings and 13,000 words in notes. It also features the original album his drawings were bound into when it arrived in England in the 17th century.

Professor Peter Abrahams, a clinical anatomist at the medical school, said: “According to what we’ve read about da Vinci, he wanted to make a textbook so that his art pictures would be more realistic.

“He wanted to understand, and was really an inquiring scientist, about what the human body was like on the inside.

“He planned to publish an anatomy book, originally for artists, but as he went along he realised no-one else had done this kind of work. The first textbook of Renaissance anatomy was more than 30 years after the death of da Vinci.

“He had nothing to guide him at all in this. I’d say his drawings were between 95 and 98 per cent accurate.

“He actually dissected all the bodies personally himself, which would have been a horrible, smelly and very unpleasant business.

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“He would only have had a few instruments, such as knives, saws and scalpels, but very few. They didn’t embalm the bodies in those days. It would’ve been horrendous.”

Martin Clayton, the exhibition’s curator, said: “He wasn’t doing this work in secret, he always wanted this work to be published, almost from the point he started studying anatomy, but he never completed it before he died.

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“He never actually published anything at the time, not a word. He was one of those possible who could never finish anything and put pen to paper to express his final thoughts.

“But it’s incredibly exciting to discover how his investigations 500 years ago foreshadowed the work of today’s leading anatomists to an astonishing degree.”

Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man is at the Queen’s Gallery at the Palace of Holyrood House from until 10 November.