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Last updated: April 29, 2012 8:08 pm
An underappreciated delight at the National Gallery’s blockbuster Leonardo show last year was the superb group of drawings lent by the Queen. Now the Queen’s Gallery builds on Leonardo fever to stage a substantial exhibition of the artist’s studies of the human body, exploring more fully than ever before Leonardo’s pioneering understanding of anatomy.
This was a subject that obsessed Leonardo: he worked in hospitals, was a skilled dissector, and aimed to publish a treatise on his discoveries. He came close, for example, to working out the circulation of the blood, based on studies of the hearts of oxen, and made models to analyse blood flow and the hydrodynamic principles of valves and chambers. But when he died in 1519 such drawings remained among his private papers and were mostly unknown for centuries. Some, however, were pasted into albums, one of which was acquired by Charles II.
The earliest drawings here, from the late 1480s, are studies of animals, made before Leonardo had access to human corpses: the foot of a bear – the only large quadruped that walks on the soles of its feet – and a monkey’s arm showing the nerve pathways. Then in 1489 Leonardo made a series of exquisitely detailed studies of a human skull, and by the 1500s he was conducting autopsies at the University of Pavia. In the 18 sheets of “Anatomical Manuscript A” he illustrates every bone in the human body except those of the skull, and many major muscle groups.
The extreme clarity of these drawings was in part the result of his knowledge of architecture and engineering, from which he learnt to show cross-sections and the “exploded view”, pulling apart elements to demonstrate their connections. Throughout, too, is an overriding concern with proportion, reflecting Renaissance ideals of the human body as an expression of universal harmony, and making these intense scientific explorations objects of rare, precise beauty.
Until October 7
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