Human body — the artist’s perspective

Curiosity about human anatomy led the grand Renaissance collaboration of art and science

The history of surgery is intimately connected with the history of dissection — especially of corpses. Yet, societies were for long averse to the practice of cutting up a body to the bone. Reports of surgical interventions appear in ancient texts from across the world. While many of these accounts are coloured by significant flights of fancy, some have a core of truth; the proof lies in ancient skeletons recovered from burial graves that bear clear, well-defined incision marks on the bones and even the teeth.

By 3 BC, Alexandria, in modern-day Egypt, had grown to be the centre of Greek medical studies. A sophisticated medical systemisation was undertaken by two Greek physicians — Herophilus of Chalcedon and Erasistratus of Ceos. They overcame social and religious sanctions to delve deep into the human body and pass the knowledge on to their students. They were challenged by other schools of thought. That, combined with wars that ravaged the city and burned down libraries, extinguished this knowledge for centuries.

But human curiosity doesn’t die easily. So, despite pressures from the European church during the Middle Ages — a time when cadaveric dissections were banned as blasphemy — curiosity about the human body stayed alive. By the 12th and 13th centuries, universities were set up in Italy, France and England. The diktats on dissections were subsequently relaxed and the University in Bologna began to teach human dissections, setting off a chain of events that led to new directions in both science and art. By the 16th century, dissections had become fairly common in Europe, yet finding cadavers remained difficult. Only those of executed criminals were easily available. But then, there were only so many executions in Italy, which by then had grown to be the pre-eminent centre for anatomical studies in Europe. Thus began a range of unsavoury practices ranging from grave robbing, assaults on funeral processions and even murder, to obtain bodies.

Imagine a society where people robbed graves just to be able to cut up the human body and take a look inside? Anatomy had become a craze in 15th-century Italy, and artists of the day realised they had much to learn by witnessing dissections. Some even performed them to attain a realistic depiction of the human body in rest and in motion. At the end of the 15th century, illustrated medical texts and prints were published in Europe by brothers Giovanni and Gregorio de Gregori in Venice, and Richard Helain, a doctor, in Nuremberg. These prints were schematic in nature and the artists’ role in their making was purely a contractual one.

Quick strokes: Michelangelo’s mastery is evident in the sketch he made for a painting in the Sistine Chapel   –  IMAGE COURTESY: WIKIMEDIA

Yet one artist — Antonio del Pollaiuolo of Florence — decided to delve deeper. In 1470, 20 years before the medical texts from Venice, he produced a remarkable engraving called the Battle of Nude Men.

His goal was to experiment with figurative forms, to understand how the skeletal forms and musculature manifest themselves in various static and dynamic poses and to demonstrate this in exquisite print, albeit with a bit of artistic licence. Pollaiuolo chose copperplate engraving — a technique where the artist cuts into the copperplate with a variety of sharp tips — to make prints. Pollaiuolo’s engravings render a finer range of detail and shading than the scientific manuscripts, which used the rougher woodcut method (one in which wood replaces copper). They also display a greater knowledge of anatomy than the scientific publications of his time.

With time, artists became more interested in the study of technical anatomy. In the 16th century, Italy witnessed a flourishing of art and science that would eventually herald the industrial age.

During this Renaissance, artists attained a pre-eminent position in society. Two anatomists took overlapping but different routes to anatomical mastery: Leonardo da Vinci explored anatomy as both a scientist and an artist, dissecting, documenting and imagining with virtuosity and abandon. He would instruct his students not to get too carried away with the depiction of muscles for an aesthetic image. He believed the depiction would appear wooden if too much emphasis was put on surface musculature. Both artists and scientists would learn from his illustrations and line drawings. Today’s medical texts owe much to the tradition set out by both Pollaiuolo and Leonardo da Vinci.

Michelangelo, on the other hand, was interested primarily in artistic depiction. He studied anatomy as seriously as anybody else, obtaining cadavers through interesting methods that included grave digging, dissecting dead soldiers, including a controversial instance where he cut open a noble’s relative killed in war. He was interested in the variations of anatomy which affected overall appearance and surface form. Yet, his mastery can be gauged from a sublime study, possibly a fairly quick sketch, he made for one of his paintings in the Sistine Chapel.

Other artists then took on the mantle of anatomist. Prominent among them were Raphael and Peter Paul Rubens. Some of Raphael’s forms would inspire figures in anatomy textbooks of the day, written by doctors Berengario da Carpi (Isagoge Breves/ Commentaria) and Vesalius (De Humani Corporis fabrica). By the end of the 16th century, medical professionals began to take a lead in the depiction of anatomy while still taking their cue from artists. Within a couple of centuries, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s invention of the microscope would shift the realm of human wonder to the microscopic world. And with it the grand Renaissance collaboration of art and science, mediated by a love of anatomy, would come to a close.