On the suitably labeled ‘science fiction’ blog io9 Annalee Newitz and Sophie Bushwick posted an article on 29 December with the ambitious title 10 Images That Changed the Course of Science (And One That Is About To). Unfortunately their very first choice is an absolutely classical example of the mythology of science. They wrote:
Human anatomy, by Leonardo Da Vinci (1509-1510) At a time in history when few people had methodically attempted to document human anatomy both inside and outside the body, Renaissance artist Leonardo Da Vinci did both. He produced over 200 drawings, based on dissections he observed, of human musculature and skeletal structure. Not only were these images beautiful, but they were among the most accurate medical diagrams created in Europe up to that point. By combining scientific observation with his art, Da Vinci helped to invent modern anatomy studies.
Of itself the paragraph quoted above is, at least up to the last sentence, almost correct. The only thing that I would criticise is the implication that Leonardo was somehow unique in his anatomical studies. In fact he was doing nothing that almost all of his contemporary artistic colleagues were also doing. Anatomical studies of this type were part and parcel of the apprenticeship of a Renaissance artist. In fact Leonardo was introduced to the practice by his master Andrea del Verrocchio. The only thing one can say is that Leonardo did it better than his colleagues with the possible exception of Michelangelo. My problem is with the final sentence:
By combining scientific observation with his art, Da Vinci helped to invent modern anatomy studies.
Leonardo did not help to invent modern anatomical studies because his anatomical sketches remained largely unpublished and unknown. A very small amount of the material saw the light of day in his Treatise on painting, which was edited by his heir Francesco Melzi but first published in 1632. Of course by this time the study of anatomy had been truly revolutionised by the medically far superior illustration in Vesalius’ De fabrica, which was published in 1543. If anybody should be credited with producing anatomical images that changed the course of science then it is Vesalius’ artist who was probably Jan Steven van Calcar.
Image as usual
stolen borrowed from Wikipedia
You might ask why I have included this, albeit short, new post under the rubric ‘Monday blast from the past’. One could regard the above as a footnote to my post from last year criticising people who include Leonardo in the history of Renaissance science, Pissing on a Holy Cow.