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Leonardo's study of anatomy

Leonardo’s study of anatomy may have begun as part of his work towards a proposed treatise on painting. The principal subject matter of the Renaissance artist was the human body – and to paint it correctly, the artist had to understand its structure.

But from the outset Leonardo’s anatomical interests went far beyond what was useful for an artist, and included reproduction, the nerve pathways and the structure of the brain. At this stage of his career he had little access to human material, and most of his studies were based on traditional belief or animal dissection.

The work should begin with the conception of man. Describe the form of the womb, and how the child lives in it, and to what stage it resides in it, and in what way it is given life and food. Also its growth, and what interval there is between one stage of growth and another; and what it is that pushes it out of the body of the mother, and why it sometimes comes out of the mother’s belly before due time.

Then describe which parts grow more than others after the infant is born, and give the measurements of a child of one year.

Then describe the grown man and woman, and their measurements, and the nature of their constitution, colour and physiognomy.

Then describe how they are composed of veins, nerves, muscles and bones. Do this at the end of the book.

Then in four drawings depict the four universal conditions of man, that is: joy, with different ways of laughing, and draw the cause of the laughter; weeping in different ways, with their cause; fighting, with the different movements of killing; flight, fear, ferocity, boldness, murder, and everything belonging to such events.

Then draw labour, with pulling, pushing, carrying, stopping, supporting and similar things.


Then describe attitudes and movement.


Then treat perspective through the function of the eye; on hearing, I shall speak of music; and describe the other senses.

Leonardo’s First Outline for his Treatise on Anatomy, 1489

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