Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man

Long renowned as one of the finest artists of the Renaissance, Da Vinci was also one of the greatest anatomists the world has ever seen.

Almost 500 years after his death, this exhibition – also part of the Edinburgh festival – uses 21st-century technology to explore the modern relevance of Da Vinci's anatomical research.

Da Vinci's historical drawings are presented in juxtaposition with CT and MRI scans, computer simulations and 3D film of the body, proving how incredibly far-sighted his work was and why it still remains vital to anatomists working today. 

The artist originally began researching the human body to ensure that his paintings were as 'true to nature' as possible but became so fascinated with what he discovered that he ended up producing an entire illustrated treatise on anatomy.

As part of his investigations, he dissected more than 30 corpses in hospitals and medical schools, filling hundreds of pages of his notebooks with detailed sketches that were unlike any that had been seen before.

Had they been published, these could have transformed European knowledge of anatomy but upon Da Vinci's death in 1519 they were lost amongst his personal papers and remained undiscovered for hundreds of years. 

The range of graphic techniques that he developed to produce these drawings foreshadow modern medical imaging to a bewildering degree. 

Drawing on principles he had learnt from other disciplines such as architecture and engineering, his diagrams use 'exploded views' to portray structure and movement, pulling elements apart to show how they fit together. 

Don't miss

Anatomical Manuscript A, which forms the centrepiece of the exhibition, has never before been displayed in its entirety in the UK. 

Over these 18 sheets the artist crammed more than 240 individual drawings and notes running to more than 13,000 words.

Amazingly, Da Vinci's manuscript covers almost every bone in the human body and many of the major muscle groups, which is particularly impressive given that he managed to convey this complex information in two-dimensional drawings. 

The document also shows that Da Vinci used 'mirror-writing' to record his research – a trick picked up in childhood which became a habit of the artist. Apparently this was not an attempt to keep his work secret and was just his preferred method of notation.  

Other exhibition highlights include the first accurate depiction of the spine in history (1510) and Da Vinci's notes from his post-mortem dissection of a 100-year-old man (c.1508) which make landmark observations about cirrhosis of the liver and the narrowing of the arteries.

Also on display is the study of a child in the womb (c.1511), displayed alongside a 3D ultrasound scan of a foetus.


Venue details

The Queen's Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse Canongate, The Royal Mile Edinburgh EH8 8DX www.royalcollection.org.uk/visit/queensgalleryedinburgh

Entry details

Standard entry charge applies
Standard entry charge to exhibitions applies

Nov – Mar 

Daily, 9.30am – 4.30pm 

Apr Oct

Daily, 9.30am – 6pm

Closed 8 Feb – 3 Mar, 25 Mar, 25 Jul – 4 Aug