Leonardo da Vinci (Anatomist): A Curious Learner & Discoverer

Leonardo da Vinci is widely known for his anatomical drawings and findings. Here’s a peek inside what makes them one of a kind and how the polymath was a great anatomist.

Leonardo da Vinci Anatomist

The finale of the famous Crime Thriller series Hannibal Lecter really overwhelms me (don’t worry, I’m not spoiling anything by telling you about its ending). I was not at all expecting this from the writers and directors. And somewhere, I felt that as fascinating as it is, I couldn’t get enough of it. One of the takeaways, or should I call the reason that kept me hooked up with every single episode of the series, were piqued by the perfect stitching of the bodies, the exquisite cutting skills, and the culinary habits of Dr Lecter. Having his psychological skills made me admire him more, as a glance was all it took for him to know what was really going on. On Saturday, I kept things straight and worked on the read, 10 Famous Paintings of Jesus, in which I wrote about the Salvator Mundi, which featured optical illusions and human anatomy. And my vivid imagination somehow connected the destructively genius mind of Hannibal with the mastermind of Leonardo da Vinci (Anatomist), knowing the renaissance master excelled at many fields in his lifetime. Though they belong to two entirely different periods and they have nothing in common, it is all in my mind that maybe Hannibal Lecter studied the human anatomy through the notes of Leonardo, which made him so capable of learning the human body in detail. Now, you might think that what is so special about Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings and notes that I keep mentioning them again and again. So, here in this article, I will tell you all about it. And in conclusion, you have all the right to decide on the question, Was Leonardo a Great Anatomist? So, let us start this read.

Well, everybody knows who is Leonardo da Vinci, but I will still give you little hints to introduce him in the shortest. The creator of the paintings, The Last Supper and Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci, is a genius who was a man of science and engineering. A passive observant, he was dedicated to the innovative studies of the anatomy, fossils, birds, the heart, flying machines, botany and weaponry. One of the most crucial things which he gave to the generations is the connection of humanities and sciences through the iconic drawing, Vitruvian Man. Besides all of it, he had such an urge to read minds through just facial expressions, which came from his years old anatomical studies.

Beginning of Leonardo da Vinci (Anatomist), First Period, 1487-93.

Leonarda as a young painter, studied human anatomy, in the beginning, to just improve his art. His forerunner, Leon Battista Alberti, to whom he gave much respect, has written in his book, On Painting,

“Isolate each bone of the animal, on this add its muscles, then clothe all of it with its flesh.”

He further, added,

“Before dressing a man, we first draw him nude, then we enfold him in draperies. So in Painting the nude, we place first his bones and muscles, which we then cover with flesh so that it is not difficult to understand where each muscle is beneath.”

And this advice of Battista impacted Leonardo to such a great extent that he wrote in his notebook,

“It is necessary for a painter to be a good anatomist, so that he may be able to design the naked parts of the human frame and know the anatomy of the sinews, nerves, bones, and muscles.”

And it was only after this that he even wanted to know how emotions led to the physical motions. This, in turn, let him interested in the way the nervous system works and how optical impressions are processed.

Leonardo was not a borne anatomist, but he studied it when he moved to Milan. He learned from the medical scholars rather than the artists, as the University of Pavia was a center for medical research. As a result, prominent and significant anatomical scholars tutored him, lending him books and teaching everything about dissection. 

When he started as Leonardo da Vinci (Anatomist), he started learning these topics, like, What nerve is the cause of the eye’s movement and makes the movement of one eye move the other of expressing wonder, laughing, thirst, sleep, yawning, and hunger. This intermingling of artistic and scientific interests let Leonardo produce more than 5000 pages of anatomical studies, which even scholars and medical experts refer to. Now, let me take you to his actual drawings and his significant discoveries about it.

The Initial Anatomical Studies of Da Vinci.

The initial anatomy studies of Leonardo started in 1489 when he drew a human skull. I am adding the picture of his study where his groundbreaking technique to showcase the two halves of the human skull together formed the idea for the viewer to witness the inner cavities positioned concerning the face. And don’t forget that Leonardo was the first person to correctly depict the frontal sinus just behind the eyebrow. And you can see that on the left, Leonardo drew the four types of human teeth, saying that humans have thirty-two teeth, including wisdom teeth. Hence, Leonardo became the first person to be celebrated as a pioneer of dentistry.

In another sketch of skull drawings, he drew a set of axis lines where he located a cavity near the center of the brain, where he told that it consisted of the senso commune or the confluence of the senses. In his diary, he wrote,

“The soul sees to reside in the judgment, and the judgment would seem to be seated in that part where all the senses meet; and this is called the senso commune.”

And after all these discoveries, he put aside his anatomical works on the side in the mid-1490s. Though he was not originally correct about his description of senso commune, he did know that the human brain receives the visual and other stimuli to process them into perceptions, through which the nervous system transmits reactions to the muscles.

Now, when this genius after a decade will return to anatomy, lessons, he will discover all those things for which I keep saying that Leonardo was not just a curious observant or a genius in artworks but an excellent man of anatomy.

Also, he studied human proportions through the Vitruvian Man after 1490. You can learn about it through the if you want in-depth learning of his experiments and observations with the human proportion.

The Second Round of Anatomy.

In 1508, Leonardo was at the hospital of the Santa Maria Nuova, where he was basically stuck with a man who was more than a hundred years and was never been ill in his entire life. When the old man, passed away without moving or showing any signs of distress, Leonardo began dissecting his body, which would become his second round of anatomical research from 1508 to 1513

You must note that earlier, when Leonardo was doing his round of anatomical drawings, he majorly included the beautiful renderings of a human skull, but this time he set his drawings above everything. As the old man died, Leonardo drew respectful little sketches of his peaceful face, eyes closed, and moments after his death. And, then, on dissection, he made notes of more than thirty pages. 

You must note that these anatomical drawings were better than the first round as the artist made detailed underdrawings in black chalk and finished with inks and washes. Also, he gave shape and volume to the form of bones and muscles with fine lines showcasing the tendons and fibers. Each of his muscles is shown with three to four angles, which gave an excellent result of the biological sketches. 

He would first show the surface muscles, then the inside muscles and veins as he peels off the skin. Starting from the right arm and neck, then the torso, noting how the spinal cord was curved, and then he got to the abdominal wall, intestines, and stomach. With all these dissections, he never reached to the legs as the untreated body would decompose too badly, that it almost becomes unbearable to handle. In the quest to figure that how the old man died, Leonardo made a scientific discovery as he documented the entire process. He noted that there was a process involved called arteriosclerosis, in which the walls of arteries are first thickened and stiffed by the accumulation of the plague-like substances. Next, to these sketches, he made drawings of blood vessels to those of a two-year-old boy who died in hospital. Leonardo noted,

“The network of vessels behave in man as in oranges, in which the peel becomes tougher and the pulp diminishes the older they become.”

In later years, a cardiologist, Kenneth Keele, noted that the analysis of Leonardo for the death of the old man was the first description of arteriosclerosis as a function of time. 

Coming upon the dissections, the Traditional anatomy instructors would stand at a lectern and read the texts as the assistant dissect a corpse to let the students view the components. Leonardo da Vinci (Anatomist), on the other hand, insisted that his drawings were better than watching a live dissection. He notes,

“You who say it is better to watch an anatomist at work than to see these drawings would be right if it were possible to see all those things, which are shown in these drawings.”

Further, he also notes,

“You will perhaps be deterred by your stomach; and if this does not deter you, you may be deterred by the fear of living through the night hours in the company of quartered and flayed corpses, fearful to behold. And if this does not deter you, perhaps you will lack the good draftsmanship that such a depiction requires; and even if you have skill in drawing, it may not be accompanied by a knowledge of perspective; and if it were so accomplished, you may lack the methods of the geometrical demonstration and of calculating the forces and strengths of the muscles; or perhaps you will lack patience so that you will not be diligent.”

Leonardo owned around 116 books, including Johannes de Kethan’s Fasciculus Medicinae, published in Venice in 1498; Bartolomeo Montagnana’s Tractatus de Urinarum, published in Padua in 1487; and Anatomice by Leonardo’s contemporary Alessandro Benedetti, printed in Venice in 1502. Hence, Leonardo was a self-student with heaps of patience and curiosity. 

In the winters of 1510-11 came the most significant time of Leonardo da Vinci anatomy when he collaborated with Marcantonio della Torre, a twenty-nine-year-old anatomy professor at the University of Pavia. Vasari, on their relationship, called,

“Each helped and was helped by the other.”

Leonardo made notes and drawings while his students dissected twenty human cadavers that winter. The professor provided the human cadavers and lectured while his students did the actual cutting.

He made 240 drawings and wrote thirteen thousand words of text during this intense period of study to illustrate and describe every bone, muscle group, and major organ in the human body, which would have been his most historic scientific accomplishment if it had been published. Leonardo wrote,

“This winter of 1510, I believe I will finish all this anatomy,”

on an elegant drawing of a man’s muscular calf and the tendons of his foot. Had Marcantonio died in 1511 due to the plague, it is unimaginable what he and Leonardo could have accomplished.

Now, that you know such a vast background of the Leonardo da Vinci’s (Anatomist), let me show you a few pictures of his analogies for separate organs and muscles, by which we can finally see in short, how important they are.


Leonardo da Vinci had almost done his anatomical studies on the skull, eye, lips, mouth, brain, and even fetus. After twenty-five years of Leonardo’s death, Andreas Vesalius published an epochal, On the Fabric of the Human Body, which became the largest anatomical work. If Marcantonio haven’t died from the plague and had they published the anatomical notes, they would leave an impact on the history of sciences. However, we must note that none of this diminishes the excellence of Da Vinci.


1. Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacton.

2. Leonardo Da Vinci: Anatomical Drawings from the Royal Collection.

Frequently Asked Questions.

What did Leonardo discover about anatomy?

There are numerous discoveries in Leonardo’s anatomical studies. In addition to that, he was the first person to make a complete skull in two halves with cavities, tells us about the four types of human teeth and the number 32, including wisdom teeth, and describes sadness and pain through the movement of the face. There are many more accomplishments in his anatomical studies.

When did Leonardo start studying anatomy?

The first time Leonardo studied anatomy was between the years 1487-93 when he made studies of the skull. Then again, nearly a decade later, from 1508-13, he studied vast anatomy, including the tissues, muscles, bones, fetuses, and brains of the human body. 

Did Leonardo study mathematics and anatomy?

Yes, Leonardo studied geometry in mathematics, perspective, and human anatomy, along with the optics and illusions to form the paintings, Mona Lisa and Salvator Mundi, which makes them one of a kind in history.

How accurate was Da Vinci’s anatomy?

Leonardo da Vinci anatomy had some unconventional studies of humans, which was perfect. For instance, in the first old man who died due to cardiac arrest, upon dissection, the way he described the beginning signs of arteriosclerosis as a function of time was absolutely accurate.

Was Leonardo da Vinci the father of anatomy?

No, Leonardo da Vinci was not the father of anatomy, as he was unable to complete his entire anatomical lessons due to the plague hit and the death of his partner, Marcantonio. It was Andreas Vesalius, who is called the father of anatomy, who came 25 years later after Leonardo’s death to publish On the Fabric of the Human Body, the largest anatomical work.

Where did Leonardo da Vinci dissect bodies?

Leonardo da Vinci dissected the bodies in the crypt of Santa Maria Nuova between 1508-10.

How many bodies did Leonardo dissect?

Leonardo da Vinci dissected around 30 corpses of all ages and gender between the years 1508-13. 

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