Da Vinci’s Incredible Anatomical Drawings

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The new Leonardo da Vinci app looks like it’s going to be enthralling, especially for Dan Brown and/or people with an actual iPad. The app, which accompanies the “Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist” exhibition at Buckingham Palace, lets you explore hundreds of da Vinci’s anatomical drawings. The incredible accuracy of the depictions’ details marks a huge milestone in anatomical science. For those who don’t realize how dark the dark ages were when it came to medical knowledge, here’s a little bit of the fascinating history.

Before da Vinci, the knowledge of what lay inside a human body was rough at best. Most medieval doctors adhered to the four humor theory created by the Greeks. In their understanding, balance between the four bodily fluids determined perfect health. The now-barbaric practice of leaching didn’t seem odd at the time because it aided in getting rid of “excess” blood.

My favorite case of anatomical mistakes, however, took place during medical school exams in the Middle Ages. Medical teachers expected their students to identify various organs and glands within a body. One catch, though. Medical scholarship at the time often relied on autopsy work done on animals. At least one of the glands students had to find doesn’t exist in humans but in monkeys. I don’t know about you, but if they ever invent a time machine, I’m going back to a time when I’m confident doctors can identify which body parts are mine, and which are the monkey’s.

Enter the Renaissance. Autopsies on humans--yes, completely gruesome, but beneficial to both science and art--became prevalent and allowed more people to observe the human body. Da Vinci himself studied some 30 different bodies, and advanced quite far in his knowledge of how the human body works. A century before William Harvey published his surprisingly cutting-edge essay on how the heart pumps blood around the body, da Vinci had made a model of the heart to investigate the chambers and one-way valves. Da Vinci’s drawings, with notes written in his odd mirror script explaining his observations, captured more than the cardiovascular system. Intricate, elegant, accurate, the drawings mark yet another achievement of the Italian genius and highlight his futuristic mindset.

So the question becomes, is the app worth the kind of pricey $14.00? The description promises 3D models of da Vinci’s work, a “mirror spyglass” for reading the text and the complete story behind the pictures. You can also view some of the images, with fewer bells and whistles, on the exhibition website.

At the very least, do check out New Scientist’s awesome preview of the images. Their gallery has translated fragments of da Vinci’s jotted notes, which put you into the mind of Leonardo da Vinci. Even if only for a moment.

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