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Turns Out Michelangelo And Da Vinci Trafficked Dead Bodies For Their Art

Updated September 23, 2021 27.5k views13 items
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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? 

  • Photo: Michelangelo / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    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. 

  • Photo: Leonardo da Vinci / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    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. 

  • Photo: Leonardo da Vinci / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    da Vinci Began Drawing Skulls And Continued To Investigate The Human Body Through Dissection

    Leonardo’s anatomical studies started off a different way: with a human skull. In April of 1489, da Vinci sat down with a skull and began to draw it. But his studies on the human figure ran into a brick wall because he couldn’t find corpses to dissect. The shortage of bodies for dissection was a major problem for centuries, and anatomists like Andreas Vesalius even taught their students how to steal corpses to dissect.

    Because of the lack of bodies, da Vinci dropped his anatomical studies for a number of years, until 1510. That year, da Vinci teamed up with an anatomy professor named Marcantonio della Torre to undertake the series of dissections that would fill his Anatomical Manuscript A. But when della Torre passed suddenly of the plague in 1511, da Vinci had to relocate his studies to a small town outside of Milan, where he obsessively studied the human heart. 

  • Photo: Leonardo da Vinci / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    da Vinci Was Ahead Of Medical Knowledge By 500 Years

    In the Renaissance, art and science were intertwined. Da Vinci is probably the best example of that overlap, as his scientific inventions were as groundbreaking as his art. The same is true of da Vinci's anatomy, which influenced anatomists and physicians. Using his artistic skill, da Vinci pioneered methods of illustrating dissections, such as showing the dissection of muscles in layers. He also created “plan, section, and elevation” techniques, which were extremely influential. These methods were incorporated into the most famous anatomy book of the Renaissance, Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica, published in 1543. 

    In fact, da Vinci’s detailed experiments on body parts were so advanced that he was cited in a 1968 scientific article published in Nature about the aortic valve. The only reference in the entire article was to Leonardo da Vinci, whose research was 500 years before its time.