Saturday, June 02, 2012

Book Review: "Art and Anatomy in Renaissance Italy"

Art and Anatomy in Renaissance Italy (Metropolitan Museum of Art / Yale University Press, 2012), a reprint of an issue of the Met's Bulletin, is a 46-page illustrated essay by Domenico Laurenza, a historian of science who spent several years as a fellow at the Met studying the museum's collections of anatomical drawings, manuscripts, and printed books.

Laurenza subtitles his essay "Images from a Scientific Revolution," and, using examples mostly drawn from the Met's collections, explores the ways in which the "rediscovery of anatomy" during the Renaissance came about, and how the rise of print culture brought artists, printers, and scientists together, leading to "the nexus between art and science that assumed such unique forms during this period."

From Leonardo da Vinci to Michelangelo to Raphael, Laurenza examines different anatomical-art styles as they developed, and made an interesting discovery: a Raphael drawing proved to be the basis for a printed woodcut in a 1522 work by Jacopo Berengario de Carpi (significant, Laureza writes, because "a leading anatomist composed his treatise using, nearly verbatim, an anatomical illustration created by an artist-anatomist"). The plate from Berengerio de Carpi's work, Laurenza suggests, may have been the inspiration for a well-known illustration in Vesalius' De humani corporis fabrica.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, though, anatomist had "assumed a dominant role in the genesis of anatomical illustrations." Laurenza writes of this development "They were not artists and thus did not know how to reproduce reality, except in a most approximate way." The anatomists had to "transform themselves into entrepreneurs," to find artists who could depict the results of the anatomist's research in a format suitable for publication in print. Laurenza contrasts the illustrations deployed by Charles Estienne and Vesalius, declaring the former "flat and less aesthetically appealing but more complete from a strictly scientific point of view."

Laurenza goes on to discuss the shift from woodcuts to engravings as the preferred method of anatomical illustration, provides an overview of the treatises published during the late sixteenth century on animal anatomy, briefly mentions the schism between Catholic and "reformed" anatomists, and then returns to his main theme to explore further the "divergence of scientists' and artists' interest in anatomy" over the course of the sixteenth century. A final short section covers anatomical écorché sculptures.

Gradually, Laurenza argues, "the anatomical interests of artists and scientists ... separated," as the epicenter of anatomical research shifted northward and anatomists grew more interested in what Laurenza calls "fine structure," "what lies below the forms immediately visible to the naked eye." Macroscopic anatomy became more an educational tool, and with the coming of photography the fields separated still further.

As one would expect (and hope), this is beautifully and lavishly illustrated, and the design is carried out very tastefully.

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