I had the pleasure of interviewing Martin Clayton, the head of Prints and Drawings for the Royal Collection Trust at Windsor Castle, which holds the largest collection of works by Leonardo da Vinci in the world.
Clayton is a renowned expert on Leonardo. He has organized exhibitions on Leonardo at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace in 1996 (One Hundred Drawings), 2002 (The Divine and the Grotesque), and 2012 (Anatomist), has given lectures on Leonardo, and has authored several books on Leonardo including Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist, Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man, and Leonardo da Vinci: The Divine and Grotesque.
I asked him what motivated his interest in Leonardo da Vinci. He chuckled and told me that his interest in Leonardo was a product of circumstance.
Clayton was fresh out of college and was fortunate enough to get a job at the Prints and Drawings department of the Royal Collection Trust at Windsor Castle. He was constantly surrounded by Leonardo’s drawings and developed a fascination and love for them, especially Leonardo’s anatomical studies.
Interestingly enough, Leonardo’s interest in anatomy also began as a product of circumstance. Leonardo only studied anatomy for two periods of his life. The early period of his anatomical interests, in the late 15th century, was initiated by his desire to write a treatise on painting.
When Leonardo began to explore the intricacies of the human body — the most significant subject matter for Renaissance artists — for his treatise on painting, he was overwhelmed with the human body’s complexities. His fascination led to an attempt to thoroughly research anatomy for a separate scientific treatise.
In Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man, Clayton states “Leonardo’s early anatomical studies were rather unfocused, for he wished to explain every aspect of the human body—not just structural anatomy, but also conception and growth, the expression of the emotions, the nature of the senses, and so on.” (Clayton 10).
Anatomical knowledge for Leonardo wasn’t only about replicating accurate physical forms of the human body, but he thought that he could gather a better understanding of human emotions if he was able to gain access to their fundamental causes. He thought, at least at first, that an in-depth study of the nervous system, for example, would better enable him to understand and explain the affect emotions had on the expressions of the human form.
According to Clayton:
“The structural, mechanical perfection of the body was the guiding principle for Leonardo in this campaign of investigation. Though God is never directly invoked… Leonardo lauds ‘the first composer of such a machine’… and… he attributes a feature to ‘the master’… More frequently, however ‘nature’… is given as the author of a particular feature—for example ‘here you see the wisdom of nature in providing two causes for movement in each limb’… he stated that ‘if this composition appears to you a marvelous piece of work, you should regard this as nothing compared to the soul that dwells within the architecture; and truly whatever that may be, it is a thing divine’… The mural of the Last Supper was a groundbreaking exploration of the effect of the emotions on the form of man, his attitudes and expressions” (Clayton 21, 15-16).
Despite Leonardo’s attempt to thoroughly investigate and explain the human body, emotions, and soul, there weren’t a lot of resources available to him for direct study. Clayton continues:
“Leonardo was unable to get very far with most of these subjects. His status was that of a craftsman, and unsurprisingly he found human material for dissection hard to come by… Many of Leonardo’s early anatomical observations were thus based on a blend of received wisdom, animal dissection and mere speculation” (Clayton 10).
Leonardo’s later anatomical studies, however, opened up more opportunities for him. Around 1503, Leonardo received a commission to paint a mural representing the Battle of Anghiari. After a brief layoff, he returned to his anatomical studies to prepare for this large-scale multi-figural composition.
Though Leonardo was focused on the practical use of anatomy for his new composition, it wasn’t long before his interest in the fundamental causes of anatomy again became a pursuit of its own, and now, unlike before, he had greater access to anatomical resources:
“In the winter of 1507-08… he was permitted to conduct an autopsy of an old man… and indeed a year or so later he stated ‘I have dissected more than ten human bodies’… The number of corpses he claimed to have dissected grew from ‘more than ten’ around 1509 to ‘more than thirty’ towards the end of his life, and the abundance of drawings based on human dissection confirms that Leonardo now had no shortage of material. Consequently, almost every drawing and statement in Leonardo’s notes is based on direct investigation…” (Clayton 18-20).
I asked Clayton how often Leonardo would’ve dissected during this time period. He responded, “[w]e really don’t know. I think this would have been ad hoc when a corpse became available, and then he’d spend as much time as he could with it until it became unusable through decay – a few days in winter, much less in summer.”
But how was this pursuit of anatomical knowledge influencing Leonardo’s own artwork? Clayton told me that despite Leonardo’s intense studies of anatomy, Leonardo’s artwork appeared to discard the use of any anatomical reference the more he studied it.
For instance, Leonardo’s painting St. John the Baptist, painted between 1513 and 1516 toward the end of Leonardo’s life, uses very little detailed anatomy. The details of his anatomical studies are discarded for a more general, supersensual approach.
I expressed to Clayton my fascination about what appeared to be a disconnect between Leonardo’s scientific pursuits and his artistic endeavors. Clayton made it clear that he didn’t think there was a disconnect between Leonardo’s pursuits of art and science.
Art for Leonardo was a scientific pursuit, and his anatomical drawings, for instance, were his way of attempting to structure the knowledge he was gaining. Leonardo’s studies were less about the mere practice of drawing and more about synthesizing the knowledge he was pursuing about existence.
This immediately reminded me of the enlightenment philosopher’s metaphysical inquiries into the structure of knowledge. Leonardo, through drawing, was engaging in an existentially practical — as opposed to merely theoretical — attempt to uncover the mysteries of how we as human beings exist.
Clayton agreed with me and suggested that Leonardo would’ve potentially accomplished more in all of his studies if he was versed in those “philosophical methodologies” in which there’s an intellectual movement from general, guiding principles to specific details.
This was an interesting statement. It’s easy as an artist to get attached to unnecessary details and forget that the natural truth of our subject is built on its general structure, its form, on which details can be added. Form without details can still appear like what we intend, but details without form often lead to a flat mess.
With this being said, however, what if Leonardo was taking a philosophical approach to beauty? Marsilio Ficino was the leading philosopher in Italy during Leonardo’s lifetime and was the first to translate Plato’s works from Greek into Latin making Plato’s writings more available to the public. Ficino even wrote a commentary on Socrates’ Symposium, a text on the nature of Love.
What if, like when Socrates retells Diotima’s exposition of Love in Symposium, Leonardo is attempting to move from particular experiences of beauty to a more general, ideal understanding of beauty?
Instead of moving from an understanding of the ideal form of the human body to the creation of a particular human body, Leonardo seems to try to move backward from the particular anatomy of a cadaver to the emotions, the nervous system, then to nature before moving to the “divine” soul and finally to “the composer.” Is it that Leonardo’s pursuit of anatomical knowledge is also a movement toward what he believed to be the divine, the ideal?
It was in the early 1490s that Leonardo crafted the Vitruvian Man based on Vitruvius’ De Architectura. Vitruvius suggested:
“Just so the parts of Temples should correspond with each other, and with the whole. The navel is naturally placed in the centre of the human body, and, if in a man lying with his face upward, and his hands and feet extended, from his navel as the centre, a circle be described, it will touch his fingers and toes. It is not alone by a circle, that the human body is thus circumscribed, as may be seen by placing it within a square. For measuring from the feet to the crown of the head, and then across the arms fully extended, we find the latter measure equal to the former; so that lines at right angles to each other, enclosing the figure, will form a square” (Thayer).
Many artists tried to draw the ideal human form using the circle and square as their starting point, that is, they attempted to fit the human form into ideal platonic forms. This led to their drawn figures having elongated limbs and small heads.
Leonardo decided to start with the truth presented to him by nature and work back to the ideal. Instead of trying to fit the human form into a circle and square, Leonardo started with an accurate representation of the human form. He then inscribed the circle and square with respect to two positions held by the human form: one spread eagle and the other with the arms perpendicular to the rest of the body.
I find this to be a great example of the unification of science and art. Leonardo is scientifically investigating the materials presented to him by nature, but he is using this information to support his quest for the ideal, an artistic pursuit.
Leonardo himself, however, struggled with balancing the unification of art and science. Clayton suggests that Leonardo’s “concern with proportion is a major element of Leonardo’s early anatomical studies… But in attempting to determine the ideal proportions of man, Leonardo’s observations became ever more detailed, and thus a formula for ideal beauty seemed further away. In the early 1490s Leonardo’s researches into the human body, its structure, and the phenomena of life, petered out” (Clayton 15).
Clayton and I agreed that maybe Leonardo’s investigations, irrespective of their scientific or artistic nature, were more expressions of the character of a man who was interested in uncovering the mysteries of the universe. His artistic and scientific pursuits were, in this way, acts of personal inquiry and development.
I asked Clayton what advice did he think Leonardo would give to those of us with similar pursuits today. He responded, “Draw, then think, then draw some more.”
Clayton, Martin and Ron Philo. Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics Of Man. J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Publications, 2010.
Thayer, Bill. “Marcus Vitruvius Pollio: De Architectura, Book III.” LacusCurtius • Vitruvius on Architecture – Book III, 2017, penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Vitruvius/3*.html.