How Cadaver Dissection and Artists Impacted the Field of Anatomy

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The Renaissance is a period in European history that spans from the fourteenth century to the seventeenth century. It began as a cultural movement in Italy in the Late Medieval period and then spread into the rest of Europe. This time period is best known for its artistic developments and the artists that contributed to it. Perhaps some of the most famous are Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti. In addition to their contributions to the artistic world, artists in the Italian Renaissance are also very well known for their crucial role in developing the field of anatomy.

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According to Xavier University School of Medicine, “Italian Renaissance artists worked on their anatomical skills and knowledge almost by necessity as they attempted to refine a more lifelike and sculptural portrayal of the human figure (“The Italian Renaissance: How Art Impacted Anatomy”, n.d.)”. The Italian Renaissance was an integral period for the development of the field of anatomy, it was significantly influenced by the use of the cadaver dissection as well as various Italian Renaissance era artists.

Prior to and after the Italian Renaissance, anatomists did not seek to expand to the existing pool of anatomical knowledge they simply taught students what was already in textbooks. Anatomy only began to be viewed as an area of research after the fourteenth century. One of the great changes in thinking that acted as a catalyst for anatomical research was the revival of some of the classical works of the Greek. Some of the thoughts present during this time included: the idea of revering the body for its beauty and strength, believing that man represented the Gods, and that the body should be prized because it would not survive death (“The Italian Renaissance: How Art Impacted Anatomy”, n.d.). In addition to these thoughts, the concept of naturalism also surfaced. Naturalism, by definition, is the philosophical belief that everything arises from natural properties and causes, and supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted (“Naturalism”, n.d.). With both the revival of Greek classical works, and the overarching theme of naturalism preset, physicians had been taking on a more humanistic approach to their education and practice. This, in turn, warranted individuals who were able to accurately depict the natural human form.

History of Cadaver Dissection

In addition to changes in thinking during the high renaissance, it was also at this time when it became socially acceptable to dissect. Changes in the way that the human body was viewed by italian philosophers set the stage nicely for the implementation of cadaver dissection. Because the body was seen as divine, beautiful and complex, there was a high demand to study by way of human dissection. Thus, dissection began to take on a much larger audience (“The Italian Renaissance: How Art Impacted Anatomy”, n.d.).

The history of human cadaveric dissection dates back to ancient Greece in the 3rd century BC. According to an article published by Xavier School of Medicine, in August of 2018, the development of Greek medicine culminated with the establishment of the school of Greek medicine in Alexandria during the 3rd century BC. It was here that the practice of human cadaveric dissection was the dominant means of learning anatomy. It was also here that Herophilus of Chalcedon and Erasistratus of Ceos became the first two individuals to perform a human dissection. Available literature suggests that religious, moral and esthetic taboos constituted the limits of exploring human bodies during the 3rd century BC. Herophilus and Erasistratus overcame much scrutiny, however the medical community benefited greatly as a result of their diligence and perseverance. After the death of Herophilus and Erasistratus, human dissection started to fade away. Soon after that, the burning of Alexandria in 389 AD completely extinguished the flickering light of human dissection. “It was not until the late 14th century that human dissection was revived as a tool for teaching anatomy (Elizondo-Omana, 2005)”.

During the early 15th century the religious restraint imposed on dissection decreased significantly, but still remained. It was no longer the population of the church that discouraged the use of cadavers, rather it was the public. Religious authorities gave permission to physicians and artists to dissect, but they placed extensive boundaries around the practice. These rules and regulations eased the public`s anxiety. As a result, protests decreased and procedures continued. During the middle 14th century, human dissections were conducted regularly and were made part of the curriculum for medical schools across Italy.

As a result of the increasing popularity, anatomy dissection was not confined to just physicians and medical students, it soon spread to contemporary artists and the general population. Italian Renaissance artists started to perform their own dissections during the late fifteenth century and into the early sixteenth century. Two of the most notable Italian Renaissance artists to perform their own cadaver dissections were Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti. The two artists each performed numerous anatomical dissections in various points in their artistic careers; together, they set new standards for the portrayal of the human figure (Sellmer, 2001).

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci was born in April of 1452, in the small country village of Vinci. Young Leonardo showed much promise as a student in the early years of his schooling. An article published by the Antony Merlin Jose through the Yale School of Medicine states that Leonardo da Vinci`s education was quite extraordinary in that he was not taught Greek or Latin. Because of this, Leonardo da Vinci developed to be self-taught in the area of science. Growing up, historians report that Leonardo had interests in almost all fields of science with his greatest fascination being in human anatomy (Jose, 2001).

“Leonardo`s opportunities for anatomical studies were no better than those available for others of his time. Why then did he, an artist, far excel in his results beyond even the professed anatomists who were his contemporaries (Jose, 2001)”. The answer to this question lies in the spirit of Leonardo da Vinci. According to historians the artist had an overwhelming desire to know all things and to prove things to himself as opposed to others. Leonardo’s da Vinci`s methods for acquiring knowledge were through observation and experiment. Not only did he learn the relative positions of structures and how they relate to each other, he also combined the study of structure with the study of function. “In Leonardo’s drawing of the human body, man lives, functions and changes (Jose, 2001)”. He was also able to show the human form in quick motion, violent motion and dramatic motion to create works of art that depicted a functioning human frame with correct anatomy. After mastering the art of anatomy in motion, Leonardo progressed in his studies moving onto the study of the body from fetal development to old age. In total, Leonardo da Vinci fully dissected thirty cadaver bodies.

In terms of the skeletal system and muscular systems Leonardo da Vinci was able to contribute the following to the field of anatomy during the high Renaissance era: illustrations of every bone in the body, actions of the bones as levers when acted upon by associated muscles, illustrations of the proper double curvature of the spine, the true tilt of the vertebrae in the spinal column, the accurate position of the femur, accurate representation of the bones of the hands and feet and the mechanisms by which the bones function, as well as wire ion diagrams to represent muscles groups and their individual actions. In term of the viscera in the human body,

Leonardo da Vinci was able to contribute the following: accurate depictions of the digestive system including the stomach and various parts of the colon, the heart and its chambers, the heart and its valves and accurate depictions of the male and female reproductive systems. In terms of the vasculature of the human body Leonardo da Vinci is best known for his accurate representation of the coronary arteries and their respective branches. These contributions are just a few to name. The human brain was one area of the body that Leonardo did not go into depth with. The only views depicted in Leonardo’s work were the hemispheres, lobes and ventricles in the brain (Jose, 2001).

Leonardo also played around with the ideas of symmetry and proportion. In the words of Leonardo, “The span of a man`s outspread arms equals his height. If you open your legs so as to decrease your height by 1/14, spread out and raise your arms so that your middle fingers are level with the top of your head, you will find that the navel will be the center of a circle of which the outspread limbs touch the circumference; and then the space between the legs will form an equilateral triangle (Jose, 2001)”. This description of proportion is depicted in Leonardo Da Vinci`s work entitled Vitruvian Man (“Learning From Leonardo’s The Vitruvian Man”, 2009). Vitruvian man to this day is considered a cultural icon from the Italian Renaissance era.

Leonardo da Vinci contributed significantly to the entire field of human anatomy, and to this day medical students are still studying his anatomical masterpieces. Many historians and scholars regard Leonardo as the prime example of the “Renaissance Man”, an individual of feverish, inventive imagination. He is still considered one of the most diversely talented individuals to have ever lived (Jose, 2001).

Michelangelo Buonarroti

Michelangelo was born in March of 1475 in a small independent town in Caprese, Italy. He had a relatively rocky upbringing as his father had only occasional government jobs. At the age of 13 his family returned to their permanent residence in Florence. It was at this time that Michelangelo landed his first apprenticeship with the cities most prominent painter, Domenico Ghirlandaio. After one year, Michelangelo decided to leave the apprenticeship because he felt he did not have anything else to learn (Gilbert, 2019). Soon after the apprenticeship, Michelangelo joined the court of Lorenzo de Medici. It was here that historians believe Michelangelo observed his first public dissection and fostered his profound fascination of the human body (“Michelangelo: Art, anatomy, and the kidney”, 2015). Having become versed in the area of dissections by the age of 18, Michelangelo began performing his own dissections and demonstrations. Michelangelo is said to have made molds of muscles to experiment with their shapes and forms in various body positions. Some believe that by studying anatomy with the use of molds allowed Michelangelo to master the musculature, allowing him to create anatomical masterpieces like David in his subsequent years.

Moving out of his early years, Michelangelo seemed to move away from the field of anatomy and instead establish himself as a painter, sculptor and architect. Works of art such as David and the Sistine Chapel ceiling seemed to keep him quite busy. Although these works of art were not specifically related to anatomical study, each work of art includes accurate anatomical depictions. Moving out of his late 60s and into his early 70s is when Michelangelo revisited the field of anatomy and considered both publishing anatomical treatise for artists and collaborating in an anatomical text for students of medicine. Michelangelo did not end up publishing his treatise due to doubts that he had about his own study. According to historians, Michelangelo did not believe that his research was adequate to the treat the subject properly and in detail (“Michelangelo: Art, anatomy, and the kidney”, 2015). He is known to have destroyed many of his drawings on an ongoing basis and to have burned most of what remained shortly before his death.

As opposed to Leonardo da Vinci and his vast contributions to the field of human anatomy, Michelangelo is most well known for his contributions to a specific organ in the body. This organ is the kidney. During the latter parts of the 1540s, while finishing the Pauline Chapel, Michelangelo became ill with kidney stones. During this time, he was being taken care of by his peer and mentor, artist Realdo Colombo. Some believe that his condition led him to have a fascination with the kidney, which therefore led to his contributions of the structure and function of the kidney to the field of human anatomy. Although Michelangelo`s anatomical study did not span his entire lifetime, his contributions to the field of human anatomy were integral (Gilbert, 2019).


The foundation of the field of human anatomy was built during the Italian Renaissance and was highly influenced by both the cadaver dissection as well as the artists who utilized it. By studying the organic human form, famous Italian Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti were able to create works of art that allowed others to understand human anatomy to a much deeper, intellectual level. Italian Renaissance artists became anatomists almost by necessity. Without their passion for the subject and motivation to study the human form, the field of anatomy would not be the same today.

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How Cadaver Dissection and Artists Impacted the Field of Anatomy. (2019, Jun 26). Retrieved from