Friday, July 6, 2012

Martin Clayton in conversation with Dr Alice Roberts at the Wellcome Collection, 5th July 2012

Talking about Leonardo da Vinci is a big undertaking.  He was involved in almost every field of science and art during the Renaissance, making huge strides in disciplines as disparate as art, architecture, music,engineering, geology, cartography, writing and warfare.  From the perspective of someone in the 21st century he seems almost superhuman.  We struggle to imagine how someone could fit so much learning and expertise into one lifetime, how you can be not only ‘good’ but a groundbreaking genius at pretty much everything he set his hand to.  Last night’s talk zeroed in on one of his disciplines, his work as an anatomist, and the anatomical illustrations from his notebooks.

Professor Martin Clayton and Dr Alice Roberts
Professor Martin Clayton is the curator of the ‘Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist’ exhibition at the Royal Collection.  This is the largest ever exhibition of Leonardo’s anatomical notebooks, images from which have become iconic in their own right, and one which I’m visiting tonight (so expect a full writeup of it tomorrow).  I’ve seen samples from his notebooks before at the V&A and at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, the amazingly precise drawings and indecipherable scrawl generate a kind of ‘wonder in discovery’ to someone reading it.  In conversation with Martin Clayton was Dr Alice Roberts, anatomist, writer and broadcaster.  I’ve seen her on television in numerous programs, she’s got a rare talent for making complex science seem accessible and ‘friendly’. 

The discussion began with Prof Clayton giving us a quick overview of the life of Leonardo, coupled with a slide show showing us some notable works by him, explaining exactly why he is revered among the anatomical community.  I was a little concerned that these slides were moving too quickly, the pictures are so intricate and detailed that even after long minutes staring at one, new details are still becoming apparent, but I needn’t have worried as during the more conversational part of the evening they went back and discussed drawings in details.

As I’m off to see the actual drawings tonight, I don’t want to pre-empt tomorrow’s article by talking about them directly too much, but the explanation of how they were produced gave me a new understanding of just how groundbreaking they were.  One slide of a drawing of a bear’s foot struck me as a particularly striking graphic representation.  It seems almost alive as a picture, with the tendons delicately folded around the muscles, and the palpable tautness around the heel.  My appreciation was heightened when Clayton explained the medium on which this produced.  The paper is chemically treated and dyed, giving it its distinctive blue colour, leaving it with a rough surface like sandpaper, but finer.  When a silver nib is scratched over it, it leaves a line.  But once it’s on the paper you can’t erase it or make alterations to it.  As someone who lives in the age of Photoshop I’m amazed by the confidence of the lines here.  It gives you an insight into his effortless skill and his ability to produce works of such beauty.

'The anatomy of a bear's foot' c.1485-90 Leonardo da Vinci
One aspect that was repeatedly touched upon was Leonardo’s spatial awareness, his ability to not only perceive things in three dimensions but to translate that into an ‘exploded’ illustration of part of the body.  Modern medical students are partially taught using 3D computer displays of models of the body that can be viewed from whatever angle the student wishes.  In many instances Leonardo works to the same principle.  His practical, mechanical mind is visible in pictures that show how the muscles and bones of the shoulder fit together in a way that is at once both clear and also beautiful.

Modern medical CGI model of a shoulder.
'Anatomy of a shoulder'  c.1485-90 Leonardo da Vinci

My favourite Leonardo anecdote from the evening was the tale of how he sat at a dying man’s bedside in a Florence charity hospital, and stayed there until he had breathed his last.  His notebooks tell of the conversation.  The man told Leonardo that he was over 100, that he had no specific pains in his body but just felt weak.  As Leonardo delicately put it:-

“While sitting on a bed… without any movement or other sign of any mishap, he passed from this life. And I dissected him to see the cause of so sweet a death.”

Very sensitive and poetic words from Leonardo who we shouldn’t forget was perched, vulturelike over this dying man, waiting to slice him up.  But anyway, the dissection and analysis that followed features the first accounts in medical history of coronary occlusion, arteriosclerosis and cirrhosis of the liver, which Leonardo notes as having the consistency of “congealed brain”.  The care and precision of the descriptions and the exactitude of the diagnosis were 300 years ahead of their time.  Anecdotes like these, and the examples of the poetic and descriptive language that Leonardo uses give us the view of the the man as opposed to the intangible genius separated from us by hundreds of years.

The way in which Prof Clayton and Dr Roberts talk about Leonardo is refreshingly free of awe.  They treat him with the appropriate gravitas that a figure like him commands, but also as a fellow scientist.  One of the highlights of the evening was a discussion about what Leonardo was intending to show in a picture of the act of copulation.  Prof Clayton argues that the correct interpretation is that Leonardo is depicting the moment of conception as a combination of the three parts of the divine anatomy; the soul (represented by the brain), the spirit, (represented by the heart) and the body (represented by the testes).  Therefore, all three of these need to be connected to the penis, and he argues that this picture is a representation of this.  Dr Roberts offers a different interpretation of the image, that what these connections might actually be is a literal representation of the pelvic splanchnic nerves, and that rather than seeking to wedge the spiritual into an anatomical drawing, he is simply reporting what he sees from animal or human dissection.

It’s an interesting discussion, one which I suppose is in effect trying to read the mind of someone who has long passed from this world.  The discussion moves through a number of interesting notions at breakneck speed, with fascinating historical and scientific tidbits thrown at us.  For example I had no idea that medieval medicine held that breast milk was composed of menses that moved from the uterus up the breasts during pregnancy.  It was with scarcely less surprise that I learned that breast milk is in fact a form of modified sweat. 

Going to a lecture like this and being surrounded by highly intelligent people can sometimes feel a bit humbling, but this is one instance where we are all humbled by Leonardo, the ghost in the room.  I’m very much looking forward to the viewing tonight, and getting a chance to view his notebooks at my own pace in relaxed surroundings.

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