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 corpses. 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 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.
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 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 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.