Leonardo's drawing: human proportions
An Artist's View
the Human Body
The Renaissance is the period of European history which is marked by a break with the Middle Ages. Renaissance means re-birth. The first people to speak of the birth of a new and luminous age, who saw the previous period, the Middle Ages, as Dark Ages, were the Italians. While the Middle Ages had lived strongly and with a sort of sombre force, but always under the burden of an obligation to aspire through suffering to a beyond, in Italy a new confidence, a new optimism was born: the Renaissance was an enthusiastic discovery of joy and beauty in every aspect of life. Inspired by the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman manuscripts, by the finding of antique statues, by their passion ate study of ancient "pagan" civilizations, the Italians aspired to free themselves from the burden of the Middle Ages. They looked at life in a new way, and they loved it; it had lost its taint of sin. And this finding reawakened in them the passionate curiosity of the Greeks; they eagerly turned to study nature, observe natural phenomena and search for rational laws; they began to take delight in the intellectual scrutiny of the facts of life.
Artists were at the forefront of this movement. They too aspired to break from the conventionalism of previous ages. They sought to explore nature directly, without the interference of a pre-conceived philosophy or religious symbolism, without having to refer to past authorities.
Of all the things to be represented, the human figure seemed to them the noblest subject for their art. They were fascinated not only by all
that can be expressed by the body, but also by the complexity of the physical body itself. It looked to them like a wonderful universe to be explored; and they thought that they could not praise God better than by trying to represent the body as accurately as possible. So these men looked at the human body not only as artists would do, searching for beauty and harmony, but also as scientists would, with the desire for knowledge that a person devoted to science can bring. As a matter of fact, many of these painters and sculptors were also scientists. Some took advantage of the discoveries in anatomy made at the time, but some others like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo themselves per formed dozens of dissections, studying each muscle, each nerve and sinew. They ceaselessly observed human bodies in motion and studied the way they walk, they sit, they bend, which muscle is used for which movement, which part of the body rests when another is at work, the proportions between the different limbs, etc.
Painters as well as sculptors had been very enthusiastic about some Greek sculptures that had been recently unearthed in Rome. They also felt the urge to depict nude bodies, and even when the body was hidden by draperies, they wanted the anatomy of the body to show under the folds of the clothes.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519),who lived towards the end of the Italian Renaissance, was a perfect example of this new kind of artist who combined imaginative sensitivity and a scientific spirit of enquiry. "Those who devote themselves to practice without science are like sailors who put to sea without rudder or compass and who can never be certain where they are going." This is one amongst the many notes written by Leonardo with the intention of publishing a Treatise on Painting.
Leonardo felt that the human body is a complex unity within the larger field of nature, a microcosm wherein the elements and the powers of the universe were incorporated. In order to study its structure, Leonardo dissected corpses and examined bones, joints, and muscles separately and in relation to one another, making drawings from many angles and taking recourse to visual demonstration since an adequate description could not be given in words. According to him, such visual demonstrations gave "complete and accurate conceptions of the various shapes such as neither ancient nor modern writers have ever been able to give without an infinitely tedious and confused prolixity of writing and of
time." Moreover, there are not only the various angles, the infinity of aspects to be considered, there are also the continuous successions of phases in movements. The circular movements of shoulder, arm and hand, for instance, is suggestive of a pictorial continuity such as we may see on a strip of a film.
The study of structure included that of function, of the manner in which actions and gestures were performed, how the various muscles work together in bending and straightening the joints, how the weight of a body is supported and balanced. Leonardo looked upon anatomy also with the eye of a mechanical engineer. Each limb, each organ was believed to be designed and perfectly adapted to perform its special function. Thus the muscles of the tongue were made to produce innumerable sounds within the mouth enabling man to pronounce many languages. In his time divisions between the various branches of anatomy did not exist. He investigated problems of physiology and embryology, and he also studied the systems of nerves and arteries and other aspects of the body. He anticipated the principle of blood circulation and prepared the ground for further analyses on many subjects.
We present here a few extracts from Leonardo's notebooks which testify to his unquenchable curiosity for the wonderful human body.
Leonardo's drawing: the anatomy of the thigh on flexion at the knee