Picture the amazing works of Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo – the Mona Lisa, David, the Sistine Chapel. Now picture a corpse. It's a jarring juxtaposition, but the master artists of the Italian Renaissance learned how to create such realistic, beautiful masterpieces by studying remains. Renaissance anatomy was a new field, and artists were at the forefront. Famous anatomical artists, including da Vinci and Michelangelo, knew more about the human body than most doctors.
Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomy art shaped medicine for 500 years, and Michelangelo’s anatomy drawings stripped away the skin to understand how muscles worked. But these artists had to work hard to gain access to corpses – just like other grave robbers throughout history. Michelangelo traded art for corpses, although there was a rumor that he also turned to murder, like the Burke and Hare bodysnatchers. And da Vinci literally waited outside of hospitals for people to die so that he could dissect them.
These Renaissance artists were using dissection for a good cause; they wanted to understand the human body so that they could make stunning works of art. But in this case, do the ends justify the means?
Renaissance Artists Had To Look Beneath The Surface To Make Their Masterpieces
Renaissance artists were obsessed with understanding the human body. How else could they create such masterful works of art? The Renaissance was inspired to recreate the glories of the classical period, so Renaissance artists studied ancient sculpture, architecture, and painting. Their goal was to develop a style of “scientific naturalism” that could capture the world in a work of art.
But to understand the secrets of the human body, artists had to be willing to look beneath the surface. A number of prominent Renaissance artists, most notably Michelangelo Buonarroti and Leonardo da Vinci , used a new investigative technique to create their masterpieces.
In Order To Create Dazzling Depictions Of The Human Form, Michelangelo And da Vinci Turned To Corpses
There is no denying that Renaissance masters Michelangelo and da Vinci were not just great artists – they were also experts in anatomy. The central goal of Renaissance art was to create lifelike, dazzling images of the human form, whether in sculptures of the Virgin Mary or drawings of battles. In order to produce stunning works of art, Michelangelo and da Vinci had to become experts in the human form.
But where did they learn about the perfect proportions, as shown in da Vinci’s Vetruvian man (above)? How did they capture the exact muscles in a reclining Adam’s body, as Michelangelo did in the Sistine Chapel? The secret to their success came from an unusual place: corpses.
Michelangelo And da Vinci Were Rivals Who Agreed On One Thing: The Importance Of Anatomy
Michelangelo and da Vinci were both prominent members of Florence’s artistic Renaissance – and in spite of a brief rivalry, the two were generally on good terms. Da Vinci was already an established artist when Michelangelo appeared on the scene, and early in their relationship, the two clashed when they were commissioned to paint rival scenes in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio.
Their artistic techniques were very different: da Vinci popularized a style of “blending light and shadow without trait or sign, like smoke,” best seen in his Mona Lisa. Michelangelo, on the other hand, used bright colors and sharp lines in his paintings, like The Holy Family. But the two agreed on one thing: in order to create great art, it was critical to understand the human body. And both turned to dissection to gain that knowledge.
Michelangelo Dissected Corpses At A Convent To Understand Anatomy
Michelangelo wanted to be the best sculptor in history – better, even, than the classical sculptors who had inspired the Renaissance. But to out-sculpt the Greeks and Romans, Michelangelo had to understand human anatomy. Michelangelo tried to gain anatomical knowledge from his studies of nude models – unlike da Vinci, who never painted nudes. But drawings from life could only reveal so much about the human body. In order to understand what was beneath the skin, Michelangelo turned to dissection.
When he was only 17 years old, Michelangelo was a guest at the convent of Santa Maria del Santo Spirito in Florence. His protector and powerful patron Lorenzo de’ Medici had just passed, and young Michelangelo was looking for a new path. At Santo Spirito, he began to make anatomical studies of the corpses from the convent’s hospital. As a payment for these anatomy lessons, Michelangelo sculpted a wooden crucifix for the high altar. And the artist went beyond simply drawing the corpses; he participated in dissections to better understand the human form.
Michelangelo Swapped A Crucifix For Corpses To Dissect
In his Life of Michelangelo, Ascanio Condivi described Michaelangelo’s study of corpses. The corpses at Santo Spirito “advanced his knowledge more so than any other study previously,” Condivi reported. “Through dissection, Michelangelo studied every known animal, and did so many human dissections that it outnumbers that of those who are professional in that field.” Michelangelo's gift of a crucifix in exchange for bodies to dissect paid off.
Later in his career, Michelangelo’s own doctor, a man named Realdo Colombo, asked the artist to make the illustrations for his anatomy textbook, De Re Anatomica. Michelangelo had to decline, since he was busy with other projects. Through his anatomical studies, Michelangelo was able to capture how the human body worked, knowledge which he put to use in the Sistine Chapel. And all for the price of a single crucifix.
Da Vinci Takes The Crown For Most Significant Artist-Anatomist Of All Time
Michelangelo’s anatomical studies were important, but the sculptor often stopped at the muscles, because he was largely driven to understand the shape of the body and its appearance. Da Vinci took his dissections one step further, earning him the title most significant artist-anatomist in history. Da Vinci wanted to understand the human body so well that he could capture any part, or any movement, in his art. He wanted to know the truth of a gesture, which meant not just muscle, but also bone, sinew, and nerves.
In his detailed study of human corpses, which were largely produced around 1510, da Vinci created 240 individual drawings and over 13,000 words of notes. Today, his collection is known as the Anatomical Manuscript A, and it contains a number of insights into human anatomy that vastly surpass medical knowledge from da Vinci’s day.