Dissection

De Re Anattomica (1559)
De Re Anattomica (1559)

The regular practice of dissecting bodies at the Santo Spirito hospital in Florence explains the artist’s expert knowledge of anatomy.

Michelangelo was a guest of the convent of Santa Maria del Santo Spirito (Florence) when he was seventeen years old, after the death of his protector Lorenzo de’ Medici. Here he could make anatomical studies of the corpses coming from the convent’s hospital; in exchange, he is said to have sculpted the wooden crucifix which was placed over the high altar. Today the crucifix is in the octagonal sacristy of the Basilica of Santa Maria del Santo Spirito.

Ecorche (Skinned), Michelangelo
Ecorche (Skinned), Michelangelo

“Michelangelo carved a wooden Crucifixion for the Sto. Spirito in Florence, a church where he was well acquainted with the prior. The prior kindly provided him with a room for the study of anatomy via corpses. This advanced his knowledge more so than any other study previously.”

Life of Michelangelo, Ascanio Condivi.

“Through dissection Michelangelo studied every known animal, and did so many human dissections that it outnumbers that of those who are professional in that field. This is a considerable influence that shows in his mastery in anatomy that is not matched by other painters.”

Life of Michelangelo, Ascanio Condivi.

Study of Torso and Legs, c. 1520
Study of Torso and Legs, c. 1520

“From handling and dissecting corpses over such a long time, Michelangelo developed such a distaste for it that his stomach would not let him eat or drink with any satisfaction or joy. When he had finished with this practise of study, Michelangelo had collected such a thorough knowledge of the form and movement of human shape that he made in his mind an idea for the writing of a treatise. In this regard he spoke often with Messer Realdo Colombo *, the surgeon and anatomist and Michelangelo’s particular friend. Michelangelo’s theory about bone structure, the appearance of the body and its movement, he desired to be written with the assistance of some learned man, so that it would benefit all those who would work in sculpture and painting.”*

Life of Michelangelo, Ascanio Condivi.

* Realdo Colombo was Michelangelo’s own doctor. He published a volume on anatomy in 1559, De re anatomica libri XV. It is considered by Michelangelo scholars that Condivi’s notes on Michelangelo’s theories of anatomy were given to Vincenzo Danti, who published the first (and only edition) of a proposed 14-volume book set on anatomy in 1567 titled Trattato delle perfette proporzioni. In the Life of Michelangelo Condivi book translated by Alice Sedgewick Wohl (Penn State Press, 1976, 2001) she writes that this book contains the “…the central thesis… that ‘perfect proportion’ is based on the use of the parts of the body as revealed through anatomy rather than on measurement – – a concept related to Michelangelo’s objection to Durer’s theory of proportion on the grounds that it does not take into account ‘the movements and gestures of human beings.’

Gasper Becerra - Man holding his flayed skin
Gasper Becerra – Man holding his flayed skin

Later in life Michelangelo continued to dissect corpses and even played with the thought of publishing a treatise on anatomy together with his physician, the ambitious Realdo Colombo, who advanced to the position of professor and medical consultant to the Vatican.6 A daring pupil of the great Vesalius, Colombo made his name in the history of medicine when he clarified the pulmonary circulation by adding vivisection of animals to the study of corpses.7 It is less well known that he also contributed to knowledge of anatomy by distinguishing the thyroid gland as a separate organ.8 From Michelangelo’s ghosted autobiography it appears that Dr Colombo, eager to get started with a career-promoting atlas of anatomy, presented his illustrious patient with a most unusual gift—the perfect body of a dead Moor.2The intended collaboration did not materialize, however, and Colombo’s textbook De Re Anatomica had to be printed without illustrations by Michelangelo, whose hands were full of other projects.

The muscles of the left leg, seen from the front, and the bones and muscles of the right leg seen in right profile, and between them, a patella. Drawing by Michelangelo Buonarotti, c. 1515-1520.
The muscles of the left leg, seen from the front, and the bones and muscles of the right leg seen in right profile, and between them, a patella. Drawing by Michelangelo Buonarotti, c. 1515-1520.

Antiphon – Deus autem noster

Deus autem noster in caelo: omnia quaecumque voluit fecit.

Our God is even in heaven: whatsoever He has wished, He has made.

VesaliusMuscleBody

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