Please join us for the Fall Meeting of the ARLIS/Washington, DC, Maryland and Virginia Chapter at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond.
Friday, November 5, 2010
RSVP to Kim Detterbeck at firstname.lastname@example.org by 5 pm Wednesday, November 3.
The Body Inside and Out: Anatomical Literature and Art Theory
On view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ground Floor, Gallery G-21 through January 23, 2011.
This exhibition had its genesis with a visit from a group of librarians from the National Library of Medicine. They were interested in seeing any books in our collection on anatomy. In art libraries we usually think of books on anatomy as drawing and painting manuals that show how to create various body parts in different positions. We own a great variety of such manuals as well books on the study of perspective and proportion that focus on human bodies. But it was not until we were preparing for the NLM visit that I discovered the literature of artistic anatomy.
François Tortebat, French, d.1690, from Roger de Piles, French, 1635-1709, from Abregé d’anatomie, accommodé aux arts de peinture et de sculpture, Paris, 1668, engraving, National Gallery of Art Library, David K. E. Bruce Fund
After this visit, I contemplated an exhibition on proportion and anatomy that would focus on the study of the human body from the perspective of an artist rather than a scientist. Distinctions between art and science were not as clear cut in the Renaissance, and coequal partnerships between artists and anatomists manifested differently than the division between disciplines that have since developed. Leonardo and Marcantonio della Torre were exploring human anatomy together, making discoveries that had equal impact in both the arts and sciences. Michelangelo had a similar working relationship with the anatomist Realdo Columbo, and though neither of these partnerships resulted in an illustrated anatomical treatise, Michelangelo’s knowledge of anatomy as expressed in works such as the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel became the basis for many artists’ study of anatomical dramatization.
As I did more research, I found the humanist attitudes of the Italian Renaissance fascinating. This humanist movement was perhaps best expressed in the study of human anatomy. By the mid-16th century the stage was set for a major change in the study of anatomy as anatomists began to shift away from study based on classical literature and toward a more practical approach based on close observation of human dissection. The volume of printed material burgeoned and the techniques became more refined, yet the illustrated anatomy books up to this time generally contained illustrations of such poor quality as to be functionally useless for artists.