The Anatomy of Renaissance Art

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The Renaissance may be best known for its artworks: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and “David,” and Da Vinci’s "Mona Lisa" and "Vitruvian Man" have without a doubt shaped the course of art history. But a new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, “The Body Inside and Out: Anatomical Literature and Art Theory,” reveals that during this formative period in art history, one primary source of inspiration for artists was actually the anatomical sciences.

The relationship between artists and physicians during the Renaissance (roughly 1300 to 1600) was symbiotic. Artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, who were interested in exacting the human form in their art, observed physicians at work to learn the layers of muscle and bone structures that formed certain parts of the body. In turn, physicians contracted artists to draw illustrations for the high volume of texts coming out in the field of anatomy, made possible by Gutenberg's invention of the printing press around 1440. Some artists even forged partnerships with specific physicians (Titian and Andreas Vesalias are perhaps the best-known example), in which the physicians would allow the artists to assist in dissections (highly restricted at the time) in exchange for anatomical drawings and illustrations.

Some of the best artists even conducted their own anatomical studies, making new discoveries and expanding the field. While most artists limited their investigations to the surface of the body and observed live, nude subjects, some went so far as to produce écorchés, corpses in which the artist would peel back successive layers of muscle, tendons and bones, all in order to gain a better idea of how to portray the human body in their art. Da Vinci, it is said, conducted the first correct anatomical study of a human fetus.

The rare artists' manuals and anatomical texts on display in a petite room in the National Gallery’s West Building depict the proportions of the human form. Some focus on the human face, some (above) depict the musculature of the body. Both the anatomical texts and the art manuals look strikingly similar, a testament to the confluence of art and anatomy during this monumental period in European history.

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