Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) and his depictions of the human spine
- 1.4k Downloads
Few individuals in history have exerted so great an influence and made such extensive contributions to so many disciplines as Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci’s inquisitive, experimental mentality led him to many discoveries, such as spinal cord function and the proper anatomy of several organ systems. Respected not only as an artist but also as an anatomist, he made many significant contributions to the field.
This article explores da Vinci’s drawings, in relation to the anatomy of the human spine.
KeywordsHistory Italy Vertebral column Spinal Anatomy Art
“In arithmetic, during the few months he studied it, he made such progress that he frequently confounded his master by raising doubts and difficulties. He devoted some time to music and soon learned to play the lyre, and being filled with a lofty and delicate spirit he could sing and improvise divinely on it. Yet though he studied so many different things he never neglected drawing and working in relief, these being the things which appealed to his fancy more than any other .”
“I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have .”
It was this lofty aspiration that set him apart from his contemporaries who, rather than possessing the spirit of inquiry that is necessary for scientific progress, were content to hold dogmatically to the views of their predecessors [6, 7]. As a youth, Leonardo became a trainee in topographical anatomy under the famous sculptor, Andrea del Verrocchio, to whose charge he was committed [4, 6, 8]. Once acquired, this skill would not only set his brilliant mind apart from his peers as an anatomist but would also make his work far superior to theirs and ahead of its time. Leonardo da Vinci’s most perceptive work in anatomy began after his first dissection of a cadaver belonging to a 100-year-old female, whom he had recently witnessed dying.
Contributions to anatomy
Amongst Leonardo’s many contributions to anatomy were the first correct portrayal of the anterior and middle meningeal arteries and the anterior, middle, and posterior cranial fossae [9, 10, 11]. Other advances credited to him include accurately describing the heart as a four-chambered muscular structure, in an era when it was dogmatically viewed as two-chambered . He even described the anatomical changes related to the pathophysiologies of arteriosclerosis, cirrhosis, and portal hypertension [4, 12]. His revolutionary approach to depicting anatomical structures presaged the concept of viewing anatomy not just topographically but from multiple angles and in cross-section, revealing deeper structures [4, 13]. This concept is commonly employed in medical anatomy textbooks and can be seen as the mainstay of education in medical anatomy today. His depictions demonstrated structures not only in relation to other structures but also in connection with their respective functions. Finally, the first accurate representation of the spine has been credited to Leonardo [14, 15], a topic to which we will return later in this article.
Although Leonardo’s depictions were far ahead of their time, they were not all anatomically accurate [4, 12, 16]. This could be attributed in part to Leonardo’s views being influenced to some extent by the concepts of his predecessors or a progression in understanding that occurred over time [6, 13]. His earliest dissection specimens were animals (namely horses, birds, oxen, and bears ), from which inferred human anatomy. It is plausible that some of the discrepancies in his earlier depictions are attributable to this.
Depictions of the spine
Although da Vinci’s works in anatomy encompass the entire human form, this article’s focus will now be on his treatise relating particularly to spinal anatomy. He was interested in the structure and function of the spine and was the first anatomist to delineate accurately the S-shaped structure (lumbar lordosis and thoracic kyphosis) of the human spine and the anatomical structure of the vertebral bodies with their proper articulations [17, 18].
‘The frog instantly dies when the medulla of the spine is perforated; and previously it lived without head, without heart or internal intestines or skin. Here therefore appears to lie the foundation of movement and life ’.
Although the exact date when he drew this work of art is not known, one can assume that it was prior to any dissection of the anatomical region in question. This is because there are clear inaccuracies in his illustration. Given his attention to fine detail, this is most likely to be attributable to the aforementioned assumption.
We can see a clear progression in terms of the accuracy with which da Vinci’s anatomical drawings were developed and how his drawings were influenced by his mindset, not just as an anatomist but also as an engineer and scientist; and to some extent, by the prevailing scholastic views at that time. His anatomical depictions were clearly far ahead of their era and have served to improve our understanding of the true anatomy and function of the vertebral column and spinal cord.
Compliance with ethical standards
Conflict of interest
The authors have no conflicts of interest.
- 1.Clark, K. (1988) Leonardo da Vinci, PenguinGoogle Scholar
- 2.Kemp, M. (1981) Leonardo da Vinci: the Marvellous Works of Nature and Man, Harvard University PressGoogle Scholar
- 3.Keele, K.D. (1983) Leonardo da Vinci’s Elements of the Science of Man. Academic PressGoogle Scholar
- 5.O'Malley CD (1983) Leonardo on the human body. Dover, New YorkGoogle Scholar
- 7.Singer, C. (1975) In: Singer C (ed) Studies in the history and method of science. pp. 79–164, Arno PressGoogle Scholar
- 8.Bay NSY, Bay BH (2010) Da Vinci's anatomy. J Morphol Sci 27:11–13Google Scholar
- 9.O’Malley CD, Saunders J B de C M (1952) Leonardo da Vinci on the Human Body, plate 6, Henry SchumanGoogle Scholar
- 10.Clayton, M. and Philo, R. (1992) In: Leonardo da Vinci: the Anatomy of Man, pp. 36–37, Bulfinch PressGoogle Scholar
- 11.Leonardo da Vinci (1978–1980) Corpus of the Anatomical Studies in the Collection of Her Majesty, the Queen, at Windsor Castle (Clark, K. and Pedretti, C. eds.), 42 recto, Harcourt Brace JovanovichGoogle Scholar
- 14.Bentivoglio M, Mazzarello P (2010) The anatomical foundations of clinical neurology. In: Handbook of Clinical Neurology 95:149–168Google Scholar
- 15.Banerji R. (2012). Leonardo da Vinci: how accurate were his anatomy drawings? Retrieved July 13, 2016, from http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17907305
- 16.Clayton L, Philo R (2012) Leonardo da Vinci, anatomist. Royal Collection Publications, LondonGoogle Scholar
- 19.Keele KD, Pedretti C (1978) Corpus of the anatomical studies in the collection of her majesty the queen at Windsor Castle. Vol. 1e2. Johnson Reprint Co., LondonGoogle Scholar
- 20.McMurrich PJ (1940) LeonardodaVinci—the anatomist. Williams and Wilkins, BaltimoreGoogle Scholar