While the artists and anatomists of the Renaissance are inextricably associated with the reform of anatomy, the study of human anat- omy—from bodies, as well as from books—had not been entirely neglected since the death of Galen. During the Middle Ages, human dis- section was not pursued with the freedom and intensity so brieﬂy enjoyed by Herophilus and Erasistratus, but it had not been absolutely forbidden or abandoned. Interest in dissection and vivisection increased slowly between the twelfth and the seventeenth centuries, but medieval autopsies were normally conducted to investigate suspicious deaths or outbreaks of plague, or even to search for special signs inside the bodies of purported saints. Such postmortems were probably about as informative as the rituals conducted in some primitive tribes to deter- mine whether death was due to witchcraft.
Human dissection was practiced to a limited extent during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in those universities in southern Europe having medical faculties. Statutes of the University of Bologna dating back to 1405 recognized the practice of dissection. In 1442, the city of Bologna authorized the provision of two cadavers each year to the university for dissection. During the ﬁfteenth century, similar pro- visions were made for most of the major European universities. Thus, medical students were able to observe a limited number of human dissections. However, they knew that examinations and dissertations required knowledge of accepted texts, not the ability to perform prac- tical demonstrations. Students pragmatically attended dissections to conﬁrm their readings of the ancient authorities and to prepare for examinations. Medieval and Renaissance students were probably not too different from students running a typical ‘‘cookbook’’ experiment today. Such experiments are performed to teach a standard technique or conﬁrm some accepted fact, not to make novel observations.
Anatomical demonstrations throughout Europe varied consider- ably, but the typical public anatomy featured the corpse of a criminal guilty of a crime heinous enough to merit the sentence of ‘‘execution and dissection.’’ After acknowledgment of the Papal Indulgence for the cere- mony, a learned professor would read a great oration on the structure of the human body while a barber-surgeon attacked the cadaver. Gen- erally, the debates between the Galenists of the medical faculty and the Aristotelians of the faculty of philosophy drew more attention than the mutilated corpse. Anatomical demonstrations continue to provide public education and entertainment, as indicated by public displays of transparent anatomical models. Transparent organs were on display at the First International Hygiene Exhibition (1911). Museums in Europe and the United States were exhibiting various Transparent Men and Transparent Women in the 1930s.
By about 1400, human dissection was part of the curriculum of most medical schools. Anatomies were also performed in some hospi- tals. However, well into the sixteenth century, medical students were in little danger of being forced to confront radically new ideas about the nature of the human body. The medical curriculum of the Renais- sance university reﬂected a heavy commitment to the ancient authori- ties. Students were expected to master texts by Avicenna, Galen, and Hippocrates. The number of medical students was rather small, especially in northern Europe. Throughout the sixteenth century, the annual number of candidates for the degree of Bachelor of Medicine in Paris was less than 20.
For teachers as well as students, the purpose of dissection was to supplement the study of Galenic texts, but because of the complexity of Galen’s writings, simpliﬁed guides were needed. One of the best- known early dissection manuals was the Anatomy (1316) of Mondino de Luzzi (ca. 1275–1326), who served as public lecturer at the University of Bologna from 1314 to 1324. Mondino’s Anatomy was practical and succinct. The ﬁrst printed edition of the popular text appeared in
1478 and was followed by at least 40 editions. But medical humanists rejected the work, and turned to newly restored editions of anatomical works by Galen, especially On the Use of the Parts and On Anatomical Procedures. Some of the early texts included simple diagrams, but these images did little to illuminate anatomical principles. Mastery of the principles of artistic perspective in the ﬁfteenth century made the new art of anatomical illustration possible.
The development of a special relationship with the sciences, especially anatomy, mathematics, and optics, as well as the inspiration of classical Greek ideals, gave Renaissance art much of its distinctive character. Both artists and physicians sought accurate anatomical knowledge. Artists placed a new emphasis on accurately representing animals and plants, scientiﬁc use of perspective, and above all the idea that the human body was beautiful and worthy of study. To make their art true to life and to death, artists attended public anatomies and executions and studied intact and ﬂayed bodies in order to see how the muscles and bones worked.
While many Renaissance painters and sculptors turned to dis- section, none exceeded Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519)—painter, archi- tect, anatomist, engineer, and inventor—in terms of artistic and scientiﬁc imagination. Leonardo’s notebooks present a man of formidable genius and insatiable intellectual curiosity; they also reveal the problem of situating Leonardo within the history of science and medicine. His notebooks are full of brilliant projects, observations, and hypotheses about human beings, animals, light, mechanics, and more. Freud, who ‘‘psychoanalyzed’’ Leonardo, called the artist ‘‘the forerunner .. . of Bacon and Copernicus.’’ But the grand projects were never completed, and thousands of pages of notes and sketches went unpublished. The secretive, left-handed artist kept his notebooks in code, a kind of mirror writing. It is tempting to speculate that if Leonardo had systematically completed his ambitious projects and conscientiously published and publicized his work, he might have revolutionized several scientiﬁc dis- ciplines. Instead, Leonardo’s legacy has been assessed as ‘‘the epitome of greatness in failure,’’ because that which is unknown, incomplete, and disorganized cannot be considered a contribution to science. To regard Leonardo as typical of his era is of course unrealistic, although he had many brilliant contemporaries. Nevertheless, Leonardo’s work indicates the scope of the ideas and work that a person of genius might achieve with the materials available in the ﬁfteenth century.
Leonardo, who was the illegitimate son of a peasant woman and a Florentine lawyer, grew up in his father’s house. At 14 years of age, Leonardo was apprenticed to Andrea del Verrochio (1435–1488), painter, sculptor, and the foremost teacher of art in Florence. Verrochio insisted that all his pupils learn anatomy. Within 10 years, Leonardo was recognized as a distinguished artist and had acquired wealthy and powerful patrons. Despite these advantages, Leonardo led a restless and adventurous life, serving various patrons, prosecuted on charges of homosexuality, beginning and discarding numerous projects for machines, statues, and books. It was art that ﬁrst led Leonardo to dis- section, but he pursued anatomical studies of animals and humans with almost morbid fascination for nearly 50 years, dissecting pigs, oxen, horses, monkeys, insects, and so forth. Granted permission to study cadavers at a hospital in Florence, the artist spent many sleepless nights surrounded by corpses. While planning a revolutionary anatomical treatise, Leonardo dissected about thirty bodies, including a seven- month fetus and a very elderly man.
Studies of the superﬁcial anatomy of the human body had inexo-rably led Leonardo to an exploration of general anatomy, comparative
anatomy, and physiological experiments. Through dissection and experimentation, Leonardo believed he would uncover the mechanisms that governed movement and even life itself. Leonardo constructed models to study the mechanism of action of muscles and the heart valves and carried out vivisections to gain insight into the heartbeat. For example, he drilled through the thoracic wall of a pig and, keeping the incision open with pins, observed the motion of the heart. Although he realized that the heart was actually a very powerful muscle, he gen- erally accepted Galen’s views on the movement and distribution of the blood, including the imaginary pores in the septum. Like so many of his projects, Leonardo’s great book on the anatomy of ‘‘natural man’’ was left unﬁnished. When he died, his manuscripts were scattered among various libraries, and some were probably lost.
Convinced that all problems could be reduced to mechanics and mathematics, Leonardo was contemptuous of astrology and alchemy and distrustful of medicine. Indeed, he believed that preserving one’s health was most easily accomplished by avoiding doctors and their drugs. Like Cato and Pliny, he denounced physicians as ‘‘the destroyers of life,’’ who lusted after wealth despite their inability to make an informed diagnosis. Leonardo’s notebooks, however, contain prescriptions as bizarre as any Galenical remedy, such as a mixture of nutshells, fruit pits, and chickpeas to break up stones in the bladder.