Anatomy during the Italian Renaissance: A Brief History of How Artists Influenced its Development
By Rory Sellmer
The Proceedings of the 10th Annual History of Medicine Days, edited by W. A. Whitelaw (Calgary, 2001)
Abstract: Prior to the Renaissance the anatomist was restricted to the cadavers of condemned criminals and the goal of dissection was essentially to learn ways to prolong suffering during execution. Over time the autopsy was utilized in public health to determine the cause of death and later developed a role in forensics by the 1300’s. The earliest dissections took place in the homes of the wealthy and became quite common by the 1400’s. However, dissections were still only performed on criminals of low birth and were regarded as a great humility. By the 15th century, some anatomists were employed directly as the executioner; some prisoners were said to prefer the opium of the physician to a public hanging. At the same time, interest developed in anatomy as an area of research and the artists of the period were also dissecting cadavers. Demand for cadavers grew to the point that individuals acquired them by any means possible. With the revival of antiquity, the artists tried to portray man as beautiful and in doing so wanted to understand the human form completely. The patron families, such as the Medici’s, helped to bring the two groups together. Perhaps the key difference between the two was their goal in dissection; the artist to accurately produce beauty and the anatomist to gain scientific knowledge. In the end, the artist’s goal for perfection took the art of anatomy to a higher level and in the end produced some of the most magnificent productions.
Introduction: The art and artists of the Renaissance, more specifically the Italian Renaissance, played a role in the evolution of anatomy. The science of anatomy had evolved from its shadowed past as an executioners aid and began to play a major role in the medical schools of the time. The combined efforts of the artists and anatomists to accurately depict the human body elevated anatomy to a higher form. More specifically, the unique approach taken by the artists allowed anatomy to be viewed in a completely new way for the first time. This paper will briefly outline the history of anatomy up to the Renaissance and attempt to prove how the work of the artists made anatomy flourish.
In terms of how anatomy was portrayed in art prior to the renaissance, the naked human body was seen an evil and shameful. Christianity held the human form in such disgust that man was rarely represented in the nude. Therefore, there was little interest or incentive for the artists of the period to explore human anatomy. As for the anatomists of the time, there was hardly such a distinction. Anatomical dissections were restricted to the cadavers of condemned criminals. The only function was to learn how to prolong suffering during execution. Thus, the ‘anatomist’ arguably acted as an arm of the state.