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Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

The cranial nerves c.1508

Pen and ink over traces of black chalk, with scratching out | 19.0 x 13.6 cm (sheet of paper) | RCIN 919052

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  • A folio from Leonardo's 'Anatomical Manuscript B'.

    On the recto: two studies of the olfactory nerve, the optic nerve, the chiasma, and the tract and nerves of the orbit; a diagram of the umbilical vessels and the uterus; notes on the drawings. Leonardo describes his method for dissecting the brain:

    "Ease away the brain substance from the borders of the dura mater which lies between the basilar bone and the brain substance. Then note all the places where the dura mater penetrates the basilar bone with nerves ensheathed in it together with the pia mater... diligently raise the pia mater, commencing from the edges and noting bit by bit the situation of the aforesaid perforations, commencing first from the right or left side, and drawing this in its entirety; then the opposite side, which will give you knowledge of whether the first was correctly situated or not; furthermore you will come to understand whether the right side is the same as the left. And if you find differences, review the other dissections to see whether such a variation is universal in all men and women." (By ‘pia mater’ Leonardo means the membrane that we now term the arachnoid.)

    This meticulous technique allowed Leonardo to attain a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of the cranial nerves, despite the difficulties in dealing with soft, unfixed brain tissue. In the principal drawing Leonardo has opened the structure known as the cavernous sinus to show the nerves approaching the orbit, and both the anterior and middle cranial fossae. Beginning between the eyes are the olfactory nerves (cranial nerve I or CNI), with the olfactory bulb present. Emanating from the rear of the eyes are the optic nerves (CNII), crossing at the optic chiasm and continuing as the optic tract. Passing over the top of the left eye is the bifurcation of the frontal nerve (a derivative of the ophthalmic division of the trigeminal nerve CNV) into the supraobital and supratrochlear nerves. Below can be seen the oculomotor nerve (CNIII), the trigeminal nerve root (CNV) in the posterior fossa, then the ophthalmic, maxillary and mandibular divisions of the trigeminal nerve. The text in the upper right margin reads: ‘e n are nerves, the optic nerves which are situated beneath the nerves called caruncular; but the optic nerves serve visual power and the caruncles the olfactory power.'

    In the diagram at upper left the bone is omitted in an attempt to clarify the relationship between the nerves. While retaining the distinct identities of the olfactory and optic nerves, Leonardo has simply joined most of the other nerves together into a single structure.The lower drawing purports to show the vessels of the abdominal area in a woman, with the umbilicus scratched out and correctly repositioned over the bifurcation of the great vessels, and the umbilical vein and arteries shown as normal vessels.

    On the verso: a faint outline of a (?) female abdomen, in black chalk, showing some of the organs.

    Text adapted from M. Clayton and R. Philo, Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist, London 2012

    Bequeathed to Francesco Melzi; from whose heirs purchased by Pompeo Leoni, c.1582-90; Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel, by 1630; Probably acquired by Charles II; Royal Collection by 1690

  • Medium and techniques

    Pen and ink over traces of black chalk, with scratching out


    19.0 x 13.6 cm (sheet of paper)

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