Leonardo da Vinci is revered as one of the greatest artists of all time in addition to being an engineer and an inventor. One of his less known efforts is his treatise On the Human Body and its several hundred anatomical illustrations. Between his keen powers of observation and his exceptional artistic skill, he created an oeuvre that would have been groundbreaking at the time (the early 1500s), but he died before he could publish it. This trove of illustrations, which came to be housed in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle in the UK, was largely lost to the world for over 400 years—but no longer. Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy is an iPad app displaying all 268 pages of Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings, in high resolution and with commentary and translated text.
A Masterwork in Content and Production
Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy is a creation of Touch Press, whose offerings include several PCMag Editors’ Choice apps, including The Pyramids and two rare 5-star iPad apps: The Elements: A Visual Exploration and Molecules by Theodore Gray. Touch Press apps are notable for their design and production quality and their masterful integration of text and graphics, and Leonardo: Anatomy is no exception. Its historical value is incalculable, and it’s an easy pick for an Editors’ Choice educational iPad app.
Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy is strictly for the iPad, benefitting from the device’s large screen. I tested it on an iPad Air 2 running iOS 10.2.
Painter, Inventor, Scientist
The first time you launch Leonardo: Anatomy, you view an introduction—a short video by Martin Clayton, Senior Curator of Prints and Paintings at the Royal Library—and then you are taken to the Home page. Below the app’s title, the page is split in half, with The Story on the left and The Drawings on the right. Beneath The Story are links to the app’s 11 chapters, stacked next to a vertical illustration of a spine, while in a window beneath The Drawings, illustrations from Leonardo’s notebooks slowly cycle, slideshow-style.
The Story is a written account of Leonardo’s life and work, with a particular focus on his anatomical drawings. The text is lucid and engaging, and the chapters are illustrated mostly with da Vinci paintings and drawings that are not part of the collection, along with the one known portrait of him, painted when da Vinci was about 60. Each chapter ends with a short video discussion of the significance of his work by a scholar or physician. As this part of Leonardo’s story is relatively unknown, yet vital to the understanding of these particular drawings, I will describe it in some detail here.
Born in 1452, by the age of 20 da Vinci had joined the Florentine painters’ guild. It wasn’t until the mid-1480s that he started his anatomical drawings. By the time he moved to Milan in 1483, his interests had expanded into sculpture, architecture, and military engineering; for the latter, he drew sheet after sheet of novel weapon designs. His interests in science also blossomed. In addition to writing about optics and hydrodynamics, he prepared notes for a theoretical treatise on painting, tackling scientific aspects like the nature of perspective, shadow, and colors.
By the late 1480s he was doing detailed drawings of the human body, above all to satisfy his own intellectual curiosity and try to understand, for example, the relationship between the mind and the body. Eventually he dissected human cadavers (about 30 in all), as well as those of animals. It was commonly believed that people were divinely created and perfectly proportioned, to mirror the divine form of the universe, an idea passed down from the Roman architect Vitruvius. Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, which the text describes as the most famous drawing of all time, explores such human proportion in relation to geometrical forms (circle and square).
Leonardo applied his knowledge of perspective and anatomy in preparing his masterwork, The Last Supper. Although the painting itself has faded greatly over the centuries, preparatory drawings show his intent in portraying the expressions of Christ’s disciples after he had informed them that one of them would betray him. Leonardo’s knowledge of the deeper facial structures comes through most prominently in Judas’s expression of guilty shock at Christ’s pronouncement.
After a period of relative inactivity, in which Leonardo left Milan to return to Florence after his patron was overthrown, he returned to his anatomical drawings, having all but given up fine-art painting. For about 5 years starting in 1507, they became his prime focus. By 1511 he had amassed a large number of annotated drawings, and his notes indicate that he was nearing the completion of his study of the human body. But that year northern Italy was hit by the plague, and among the dead was his young collaborator, Marcantonio della Torre. Then war drove him into the countryside, and he no longer had a source of corpses for dissection, but he continued to study animals, oxen in particular, from which he was able to investigate the structure of the heart.
Da Vinci, who died in 1519, never did get to publish his anatomical drawings; the app claims that his treatise “…would have been by far the most accurate work on human anatomy published at that time….” In 1543, Andreas Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica, which became the most important work on anatomy ever published, appeared in print. At least Leonardo’s anatomical illustrations survive, have largely stood the test of time, and are finally getting the attention they are due. The drawings, which have been in the British Royal Collection since at least 1690, were shown in the UK in two shows in 2012 and 2013, and can be seen now by anyone with an iPad.
When you tap on an illustration on the right-hand side of the Home page, you’re taken to a page with a set of thumbnails on the right and a list of topics to the left. You can view the whole kit and caboodle, all 268 drawings, or choose a particular subject. The topics include time periods (Early works 1485-95, for instance), Interactive Drawings (VR illustrations, say of a rotating skull or a beating heart), materials (Metalpoint, Chalk, or Pen and Ink), subjects (Animal Studies), and exhibitions (2012 or 2013). In turn, you can press a button above the headings titled Body, and view drawings of the body, muscles, organs, vessels, or the skeleton.
Whichever topic you choose, by tapping any of the thumbnails on the right side, you can view the full-screen drawings one by one by swiping to the left. By using buttons around the perimeter of each page of drawings, you can view the original, an English translation (if there is any text), or a mirror image of the text. Da Vinci himself wrote using (reverse) mirror writing, a habit that the app’s text suggests he developed because he was left-handed. An Information button brings up a description of the drawing catalog information for those illustrations that were in the 2013 exhibition. You can also share an illustration on Facebook or Twitter or via email from a pull-down menu accessible through a Share button.
The Synthesis of Art and Science
The drawings, though astounding and masterful, are not for everyone. To enjoy them, it helps to have a stomach for anatomy, as many are cutaway views of corpses or human organs. Some illustrations show nudity, and as da Vinci portrayed the human reproductive system, a few are sexually explicit, including a cutaway view of a couple in the midst of intercourse. But artists, people in the medical profession, historians, and anyone interested in the life and work of one of the most extraordinary people ever to walk the Earth—the archetypal Renaissance man—will want to get Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy. Nowhere else is his synthesis of art and science shown to such good effect, and the app is not only an artistic marvel of great historical significance but is also easily worthy of an Editors’ Choice.