This project (2018-1-ES01-KA203-050606) has been funded with support from the European Commission.
This web site reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

This project has been funded with support from the European Commission.
This web site reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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Educational Material

Unit 7 - Anatomy Book and Instruments for the Construction of Anatomy


2.2 Case Scenario

Universities and medical schools were founded in this period, providing a formal environment for research and instruction. Previously existing beliefs were challenged, and exploration began on new horizons of human understanding. Another novelty of this period is that the printing press was invented, promoting a much more rapid dissemination of information. The overcoming of the stigma attached to dissection of the dead facilitated the advancement of knowledge in anatomy and physiology.

The representation of the human body built by medicine had historical references and analogical relations with other compounds of the culture of each particular period. The organic model, the coordinated and hierarchical dependence of the body parts, its subordination to a prevailing element (the brain or the heart, depending on the authors and times) guided directly by a soul infused by God. These are some of the aspects that reflect the relation between the image of the body and the justification of the ideological and social order, as a natural one.

The image of the human body, historically constructed by medicine and biology, often has analogical and symbolic links with the different aspects, which take part in the culture of all ages.

Since the times of the classical scientific cultures, there is an identification between the human body and the cosmos, within the framework of a single and general conception of Nature, in which cosmology and human physiology shared a unique and identical meaning as particular realizations of a Universal physis.

This is far from being the only cultural construction having a direct influence upon the picture of the human body created by biology and medicine. In addition to the unquestionable ascendancy of some philosophical concepts particularly linked to the Aristotelian tradition and to Platonic natural philosophy, medical concepts usually found a figurative sense in other cultural or scientific models. The influence of Plato’s ideas on medical thought has been well studied. In addition, his ideas in relation to natural order expressed principally in the Republic and Timaeus were used by intellectual groups to reinforce the social order and justify the monarchy as an absolute power.

The human body as the top expression of natural order represented a cross-road in interests. In fact, it was not uncommon, at the beginning of modern times, to use mythological, political or religious analogies to explain the functioning of the human organism, that is to say, to elaborate a rational discourse about human life. For instance, the description of the blood circulation of the lung by Servetus in the fifth book of his Christianismi Restitutio was inserted in a religious treatise in which the human organism was used as an analogical model to illustrate the discussion about the Christian doctrine of Trinity.

In the medical language of Renaissance, the human body, endowed with an internal organisation and an obvious functional hierarchy, was considered a representation of social order and sometimes a model of comparision to justify, as natural, the hierarchical structure of the Church. In this intellectual framework the human body was given a sacred value.

It is easy to observe the influence of the different cultural constructions on medical concepts from the start of classical scientific thought, and not only in societies in which mythical forms of thought prevailed.

If we were to analyse the contents of Hippocratic medicine, it would be easy to recognize the presence of the political culture – the particular culture of the polis- and of the social and ideological model in relation to the polis, at least in medical language and as far as some of the main concepts of pathology are concerned.

For instance, let’s consider the concept of crisis, which was applied by the Hippocratic physicians to the final evolution of some diseases. According to Mario Vegetti’s philological studies, the physicians observed connections between the original sense of crisis and the judgement by a tribunal of the guilt or innocence of the accused.

The concept of isonomia, that is equilibrium or harmony of opposite forces, as applied to health by Alcmeon of Croton, also had a direct equivalence in the political organisation, because diseases could result from the loss of equilibrium, namely, the monarchia, or predominance of one of the opposing forces.

In all these cases, the relations between social and corporal order are evident. The same idea also arises when considering the Hippocratic notion of ambient as a conditioning factor for health. The Hippocratic physicians considered salutary the climate in which no element or quality dominates decisively over the others (heat, dry, cold, humidity etc.), so that the exact equilibrium among the qualities is reached. There is, therefore, a clear analogical function between political language and some general concepts of medicine in the Classical Antiquity.

If health was considered by medicine as a direct consequence of the correct functioning of the laws of nature and, if nature and its laws are the same both in the human and social body, and in the city or state, then the functioning of all constituents of nature should be the same. That is why the restoration of the classical culture attained in the Renaissance gave a new impulse to the Platonic ideal of the republic, and the role of the polis as a social and political unit was reinforced.

The central position of the city in Renaissance culture – a bourgeois and commercial one – had a direct influence on the representation of the human body created by medicine. The Renaissance provided the basis for the development of a long secularization process in which the representation and functioning of the human body were related to the social, political and domestic order that had a great significance in medicine.

The influence of Platonic ideas, during the first half of the sixteenth century, was very great in some humanist trends. Nevertheless, other factors were also influential:

  • The retreat of the theocentric perspective (common in the late Middle Ages) in favour of a world thought in accordance with man;
  • The influence of the social and urban transformations which took place at the onset of the Modern Ages.

Numerous authors regarded social structure, political order or domestic functioning with a view to explain the body’s internal dynamism.

Leonardo da Vinci
One of the biggest personalities on anatomy in the Renaissance was Leonardo da Vinci. He was born on April 15, 1452 in Vinci, Italy. While growing up Leonardo was fascinated by animals and insects. Throughout his long life, he never stopped studying nature-plants, anatomy, the movement of water, the mechanics of flight-and applying his observations to his art.

At first Leonardo intended to learn about the human body so that he could paint it more realistically, but soon he began to hope that it would bring him to the answer to the riddle of creation.

Leonardo often watched doctors perform autopsies so that he could study human anatomy; he later began dissections on his own and carefully sketched everything that he saw. It cannot be determined exactly when Leonardo began to perform dissections, but it might have been several years after he first moved to Milan, at the time a center of medical investigation.

His study of anatomy, originally pursued for his training as an artist, had grown by the 1490s into an independent area of research. As his sharp eye uncovered the structure of the human body, Leonardo became fascinated by the figura istrumentale dell’omo (“man’s instrumental figure”), and he sought to comprehend its physical working as a creation of nature. Over the following two decades, he did practical work in anatomy on the dissection table in Milan, then at hospitals in Florence and Rome, and in Pavia, where he collaborated with the physician-anatomist Marcantonio della Torre. Leonardo himself dissected 30 corpses in his lifetime.

Leonardo’s early anatomical studies dealt chiefly with the skeleton and muscles; yet even at the outset, Leonardo combined anatomical with physiological research. From observing the static structure of the body, Leonardo proceeded to study the role of individual parts of the body in mechanical activity. This led him finally to the study of the internal organs; among them he probed most deeply into the brain, heart, and lungs as the “motors” of the senses and of life. His findings from these studies were recorded in the famous anatomical drawings, which are among the most significant achievements of Renaissance science.

The drawings are based on a connection between natural and abstract representation; he represented parts of the body in transparent layers that afford an “insight” into the organ by using sections in perspective, reproducing muscles as “strings,” indicating hidden parts by dotted lines, and devising a hatching system. The genuine value of these works lay in their ability to synthesize a multiplicity of individual experiences at the dissecting table and make the data immediately and accurately visible; as Leonardo proudly emphasized, these drawings were superior to descriptive words. The wealth of Leonardo’s anatomical studies that have survived forged the basic principles of modern scientific illustration. It is worth noting, however, that during his lifetime, Leonardo’s medical investigations remained private. He did not consider himself a professional in the field of anatomy, and he neither taught nor published his finding.

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