Old Masters, New Ideas

Part 2 of 6 in a series of articles chronicling medical illustration from antiquity.

Few epochs in history reverberate through generations as well as the Renaissance. For the Western World, the Renaissance ushered in promise for a civilization emerging from a world of darkness and plague. However, the ideas of the Renaissance would have been static had a German remained idle in progress. JOHANN GUTENBERG (c. 1398-1468 CE) perfected the printing press in Mainz, Germany after several experiments in 1450 CE. By 1471 CE, the printing press arrived in Northern Italy where some of the greatest ideas known to have been generated were about to be unleashed upon the world.

Medical illustration during this time was not immune to the explosion of knowledge. In Florence during the Middle Ages into the Renaissance, physicians and surgeons organized into trade guilds, and established close relationships with artists to whom the privilege of dissection was granted. One artist in particular to benefit from this intimate relationship with the guilds was LEONARDO DA VINCI (c. 1452-1519 CE).

By 1472 CE, LEONARDO moved from Vinci to Florence, and began an apprenticeship under the well-known sculptor and painter ANDREA DEL VERROCCHIO. He soon enlisted in the Florentine artists’ guild, Campagnia di San Luca (Company of Saint LUKE), and in DEL VERROCCHIO’S studio received his first exposure to anatomy.

The earliest anatomical sketches from LEONARDO date to c. 1487 CE when he was in Milan. LEONARDO’S knowledge at this period was potently influenced by MONDINO, GALEN and animal dissections. These views would hold true until his return to Florence in 1503 CE, upon which he rejoined the guild and began dissections in the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova.

In 1489 CE, when observations had not synchronized with prior illustrators, LEONARDO set his resolve to generate his own textbook. In contrast to VESALIUS, who began a half century later, LEONARDO’S book would encompass the whole study of man, not just the anatomy. Accurate depictions demand clear observation; LEONARDO would dissect thirty cadavers and generate 750 anatomical sketches.

In comparison of LEONARDO’S style to MONDINO, shading and shadow become more important in his sketches. The technique employed by LEONARDO is comparable to drop shadowing, in which the shadow is placed behind the object providing the viewer with depth. One of the main objectives for the drop shadow is to provide a neutral tone to the background, permitting the artist to use deep tones, highlights and halftones to create a much better sense of dimensionality. This approach allows the artist to utilize the grayscale and yields more information about the structure’s topography. The illustrators of MONDINO did not extract this much depth, and others, namely VESALIUS, would opt for a different style of definition.

Leonardo da Vinci. Fogli B 40r. (1489).

Fig. 3 Leonardo da Vinci. Fogli B 40r. (1489).

LEONARDO ushered in the age of scientific illustration. Much of the success he enjoyed as an anatomist stemmed directly from his experience in mathematics, engineering and architecture. Although an accomplished painter, LEONARDO does not approach dissections as an artist, but as an engineer. The human skull is a prime example. LEONARDO generated five plates on the human skull, each providing a different perspective. Equally provided are proportions and dimensions of the skull, including an axis and equator of the cranial vault. [Figure 3]. Other sketches show the viewer how vertebrae align and connect in the spine. In diverging away from gross anatomy, LEONARDO predicts the fluidics of blood flow through valves, and even uses wax injections to define the ventricles of the brain. [Figure 4]. These new perspectives discharge from the known models of anatomy; LEONARDO redefined medical illustration with every sketch. However, LEONARDO’S sketches would not surmise to a formal publication, a significant dispossession to the Renaissance and world.

Fig. 4 Leonardo da Vinci. Quaderni V 7r. (1504-1507).

Fig. 4 Leonardo da Vinci. Quaderni V 7r. (1504-1507).

There is some speculation as to whether LEONARDO would have collaborated with a physician in the creation of his textbook. During his second period in Milan, c. 1513 CE, LEONARDO was introduced to the anatomist MARCANTONIO DELLA TORRE (c. 1478-1511 CE). DELLA TORRE was appointed to public instructor of medicine, later professor of medical theory, at Padua. Any connection to DELLA TORRE is supported by inaccurate accounts, and given LEONARDO’S history with anatomy and quality of his work, DELLA TORRE, who died of plague shortly after meeting LEONARDO, would have been less than useful as a collaborator.

Toward the final years of LEONARDO’S life, pressures from the Papacy forced LEONARDO to terminate his anatomical studies. LEONARDO would face slanderous comments on his dissections from a German mirror-maker, GIOVANNI DEGLI SPECCHI, envious of LEONARDO’S favor and compensation from their common patron, GIULIANO DE’MEDICI, brother to Pope CLEMENT VII. Eager to remain at his current assignment, LEONARDO repudiated from studying anatomy. While unpublished, LEONARDO’S sketches circulated around his contemporaries, such as DÜRER, BERENGARIO and VESALIUS, but beyond these men, further examples are few. Four centuries later, large-print editions would be made of LEONARDO’S sketches, and would influence illustrators thereinafter.

Other anatomists and artists during the Renaissance prospered in publishing their work, unlike LEONARDO.

Fig. 5 Albrecht Dürer. Vier Bücher von menschlicher Proportion. (1528).

Fig. 5 Albrecht Dürer. Vier Bücher von menschlicher Proportion. (1528).

ALBRECHT DÜRER (c. 1471-1528 CE), a contemporary to LEONARDO, approached human anatomy contrastingly. While LEONARDO dissected, DÜRER observed. In comparing the two giants of the Renaissance, one can equate LEONARDO to scientific anatomy and DÜRER to artistic anatomy. The later would resonate for centuries. DÜRER produced a series of books, most published post-mortem, which addressed the human proportion and perspective. His first two books detail the proportions of the body as a whole, as well as separate limbs in relation to the whole; the third book focuses on mathematical relationships; and the fourth on motion. [Figure 5]. While the utility of artistic anatomy in medicine is debated, DÜRER’S ideas certainly assisted in depicting medical anomalies that do not manifest physically, i.e. depression and pain. In Melancolia, a well-known DÜRER engraving, depression is well observed in the subject using body language and facial expression. While not scientific per se, the progress in anatomy made by DÜRER remains significant and represents a moment when deliberate effort is attempted to improve how the human body is proportionally recorded.

The dichotomy between scientific and artistic anatomy resonates in two other Renaissance painters. MICHELANGELO BUONARROTI (1474-1564 CE) and RAPHAEL SANTI (1483-1520 CE) can be summarized as two sides of one, anatomical coin. In the case of MICHELANGELO, dissection and anatomical accuracy was the focus of his study. Very few of MICHELANGELO’S anatomical drawings survive to this day, but he was provided corpses to dissect during a commission at San Spirito in Florence. Prior to painting the Sistine Chapel in Rome, MICHELANGELO may have come into contact with LEONARDO in Florence while carving the David. Both artists arrived at Florence in 1503 CE. The Sistine Chapel is perhaps the most definitive example of MICHELANGELO’S devotion to scientific anatomy due to the examples of neuroanatomy found within his frescos. However, MICHELANGELO was not LEONARDO, in age or skill. Arguments have stated MICHELANGELO misapplied art to science and never fully recovered, despite later attempts to correct his faults. The arguments for the neuroanatomy in Separation of Light From Darknes, a fresco adorning the Sistine Chapel, presents doubt that while there may be anatomical structures depicted, they seem disjointed from their true orientation. MICHELANGELO dissected corpses to some extent and possibly knew of LEONARDO’S anatomical work, but uncertainty exists whether he fully mastered these concepts and applied them properly. With regard to RAPHEAL, who also dissected, his anatomical drawings have survived to a higher extent than MICHELANGELO. However, RAPHEAL focused more upon the external anatomy, like DÜRER, and many paintings he produced display examples superficial pathology.

The key to producing great anatomical illustrations combines detail with orientation of the organ or appendage being studied. MICHELANGELO and RAPHEAL each represent half of a completely successful anatomic depiction. Balance between artistic and scientific anatomy is crucial not only for paintings but for effective transmission of the idea to the student, physician and layperson. As an aside, both artists painted within the Vatican at the same time, and influences of both artists are seen in the Papal Libraries and Sistine Chapel.

Fig. 6 Jacopo Berengario da Carpi. Isagogae breves. (1523).

Fig. 6 Jacopo Berengario da Carpi. Isagogae breves. (1523).

JACOPO BERENGARIO DA CARPI (c. 1460-1530 CE) grew up assisting his father in surgery and graduated from the University of Bologna in 1489 CE. In 1502 CE, he became professor at Bologna and began drafting his textbooks on anatomy. The first textbook published by BERENGARIO in 1514 CE, Commentaria super Anatomia Mundini, was an immense volume expanding on MONDINO with added commentary based on experience. BERENGARIO was described as a man with a good sense of design. Unequivocally, the Commentaria was very expensive. The following year BERENGARIO releases an abbreviated edition of the Commentaria called Isagogae breves, yielding much success and elevates BERENGARIO to fame and wealth. BERENGARIO’S illustrations mark a starting point in themes repeated by his predecessors: such as VESALIUS and ESTIENNE. These themes include placing his subjects anterior to landscapes; personifying skeletons through articulation; and depicting variegated perspectives of bone, namely the skull. [Figure 6] BERENGARIO’S fame made him sought out by Italian nobility, such as LORENZO DEI MEDICI and the Pope. In one encounter, MEDICI requested BERENGARIO to inspect a skull fracture he suffered around March of 1517 CE. After the consult, BERENGARIO went on to produce a manuscript dedicated to MEDICI on skull fractures, De fratura cranei, cementing his fame. The illustrations produced in BERENGARIO’S texts show some influence by LEONARDO, especially his images of the heart and veins.

One of the most common trends found in sixteenth century anatomists, is the depiction of flayed corpses. The flayed corpse presents with the skin placed away from the viewer to show underlying muscles. These depictions are characteristic of later Mannerism, and a corpse placed in front of pastoral backgrounds reduces their morbid appearance in the viewer’s eyes. In addition, many of the illustrations in BERENGARIO’S work do not provide the viewer with labeling, enabling the viewer to interject their knowledge.

Fig. 7 Johann Eichmann (Dryander). Anatomia capitis humani. (1536).

Fig. 7 Johann Eichmann (Dryander). Anatomia capitis humani. (1536).

JOHNANN EICHMANN, also known as DRYANDER (c. 1500-1560 CE) became the chair of the department of medicine at the University of Marburg in 1535 CE. Soon after accepting this position, Anatomia capitis humani is published in 1536 CE with the assistance of a local printer, EUCHARIUS CERVICORNUS. In 1537 CE, DRYANDER produces a second text, Anatomiae pars prior, expanding illustrations on the head. The artist of the plates is unknown: several artistic clues suggest the engraver was a recent graduate from Basel working locally as an artist. DRYANDER adopts a technique similar to LEONARDO in his approach, displaying successive dissections. In addition, BERENGARIO served as an influence for some of DRYANDER’S descriptions and illustrations. DRYANDER sandwiches the career of VESALIUS, thus his later work will be discussed in the following section. One important similarity between early DRYANDER and VESALIUS is the use of momento mori, objects reminding us of our mortality. [Figure 7].

Both BERENGARIO and DRYANDER employed flayed corpses as described earlier. An important shift in technique from LEONARDO exudes from their work. Whereas LEONARDO used drop shadow, BERENGARIO and DRYANDER introduced cast shadow. Cast shadows form when an object blocks a light source. The shadow can vary in dimension depending upon the properties and vector of the light source. Unlike the drop shadow that is placed behind the object, cast shadows can flank either end. The effect provides a sense of perspective and dimensionality. In the case of human anatomy, these cast shadows affect the topography presented by the object, similar to oblique lighting used to evaluate the thyroid. It is important to note that both techniques of shadowing were used by these authors, signifying some influence of LEONARDO, and cast shadow largely is used by VESALIUS, who now garners our attention.

Next: VESALIUS and challenging old theories 


“Berengario Da Carpi.” The Journal of the American Medical Association 113.1 (1939): 86.

Clarke, Carl D., Ph.D. Illustration: Its Technique and Application to the Sciences. Butler, MD: Standard Arts, 1949.

Cumston, Charles G. “Giacomo Da Carpi.” Boston Medical and Surgical Journal 161.10 (1909): 344-345.

Hanigan, William C., William Ragen, and Reginald Foster. “Dryander of Marburg and the First Textbook of Neuroanatomy.” Neurosurgery 26.3 (1990): 489-498.

Herrlinger, Robert. History of Medical Illustration: From Antiquity to 1600. New York: Editions Medicina Rara, 1970.

Knox, Robert. Great Artists and Great Anatomists; a Biographical and Philosophical Study. London: John Van Voorst, 1852.

O’Malley, Charles D., and John B. Saunders. Leonardo Da Vinci on the Human Body: The Anatomical, Physiological, and Embryological Drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci. New York: Henry Schuman, 1952.

Rousselot, Jean. Medicine in Art: A Cultural History. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.

Suk, Ian, and Rafael J. Tamargo. “Concealed Neuroanatomy in Michelangelo’s Separation of Light From Darkness in the Sistine Chapel.” Neurosurgery 66.5 (2010): 851-861.

Thornton, John Leonard., and Carole Reeves. Medical Book Illustration: A Short History. Cambridge: Oleander, 1983.


  1. […] Next: Exploring the masters of the Renaissance and their influence. […]

  2. Very Interesting : )

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