The National Gallery's recent Leonardo blockbuster highlighted the great Renaissance polymath's prowess as a painter. This new exhibition sheds lights on his expertise as a draughtsman and anatomist, thanks to the Queen's unsurpassed hoard of his drawings. The 87 pages of largely human studies, rendered in pen-and-ink, chalk and metalpoint, come from the hundreds of loose notes and drawings that were left, unsorted, by Leonardo when hie died, and acquired in the seventeenth century by Charles II for the Royal Collection. 'Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist' is the largest ever display of this material and equally worthy of the blockbuster prefix.
Spanning the years 1480-1513, the pages are shown in broadly chronological order and – as they comprise annotation as well as illustration (mostly in Leonardo's trademark mirrored script) – give as much insight into his exceptional mind as they do to his view of the workings of the human body.
The first pages date from 1480-90, before Leonardo gained access to actual cadavers. These drawings of dissected limbs, all in Leonardo's delicate but assured hand, are actually from the animal kingdom – a study of the nerves is of the hand of a monkey and a section through a leg is most likely from a dog. Years later bits of animal anatomy still got mixed in with his human studies – his red chalk drawing of a curled-up foetus in the uterus shows a placenta based on bovine anatomy rather than human.
Other diagrams, such as a full-length view of a man's major organs and vessels, draw on ancient Greek and medieval beliefs that the heart was not only the centre of the body but also of intelligence and emotions. Trying to tie these ideas together led Leonardo to some fascinating speculations, as seen in his drawing of two bisected bodies in the act of coitus, with the male penis and female uterus connecting to the male spinal cords, in order to transmit the 'soul'.
He may have occasionally missed his mark, but it was Leonardo's interest in the relationship between the physical body and the mind that make these works more than mere scientific studies. Leonardo wanted to find out where a sneeze comes from, what lust and thirst are, how speech is formed by the tongue, how the workings of the mind are manifested in the body and how the mind perceives reality.
By the early fifteenth century, Da Vinci's reputation as an artist was sufficient to secure him real dead bodies to work from and it was between 1508-11, particularly the intense period spent working with Marcantonio della Torre, the professor of anatomy at the University of Pavia, that he produced his most fascinating studies – from densely packed details of all the muscles of the arm and the first accurate study of the spine to an amazing pricked-through illustration of the cardiovascular system and drawings of a 100-year old man that feature the first observation of the furring up of the arteries.
When political turmoil in 1512 resulted in exile from Milan to Rome, the artist was unable to continue his human dissections. In typical Leonardo style, instead of writing up and organising his existing notes, he moved on to other projects. The pages were left to his assistant after his death in 1519 and did not see the light of day for another 400 years.
Although the exhibition will undoubtedly appeal to anatomists – who would have greatly benefited had it all been published earlier – this is still the work of an artist. It brought to mind the Lucien Freud portrait show at the National Portrait Gallery, because, just as Freud was attempting to portray something of his subjects's complex internal psychologies in his portraits, Leonardo was also trying to connect the physiological structure of the body with the mind.
It may be labouring this comparison slightly but, like Leonardo, Freud also often made little distinction between animals and humans. The position of a dog lying on a bed in a Freud painting can seem almost identical to the awkward poses of many of Freud's naked human subjects, their folds of skin and mottled flesh painted as forensic, rather than flattering, portrayals.
After seeing this exhibition it's hard not to conclude that Leonardo's investigations into what a human being is may have been more important to him than his paintings or sculpture, although one obviously fed into the other. Yet, like many of Leonardo's artistic commissions these anatomical studies were never finished. If it was the quest for knowledge that drove Leonardo, it was a project without end.