Renaissance artists indeed used human cadavers to understand anatomy. In fact, people had been using cadavers to learn anatomy as far back as the Ancient Greek period; however, it was during the Renaissance that doing so became popular.
Many artists in the Renaissance attended live dissections, often held by lecturers in universities. Some would even form a stable business partnership with anatomists who would provide private demonstrations in return for illustrations for their books. While the topic may sound gruesome and macabre, it actually sheds some light on the pursuit of artistic perfection in the Renaissance, a pursuit driven by the rival of Classical art.
Herophilus & Erasistratus: The Use of Cadavers in the Ancient Period
It is only right, therefore, to begin in the classical period.
As far back as the ancient period, cadavers were used by both scientists and artists. Ancient Greek physicians and anatomists in particular placed a great emphasis on the advancement of science and medicine and saw the dissection of cadavers (both human and animal) as a way to learn more about the human body.
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The use of cadavers in classical antiquity was pioneered by two men named Herophilus of Chalcedon and Erasistratus of Ceos. The pair were the first of their time (the 3rd century BCE) to conduct consistent and systematic dissections of cadavers despite significant moral and religious objections to the dissection of human cadavers. It is assumed, particularly by S.K. Gosh, that the pair were able to defeat these negative views because of the general change in attitude to scientific education that came with the establishment of Alexandria (a city in the Roman Empire that would become a place of great cultural importance).
In Alexandria, scientific study thrived, and many scholars there began to support the use of cadavers for science. With the establishment of the Greek school of medicine there in the 3rd century BCE, the main method for learning human anatomy became the dissection of bodies.
Furthermore, it was likely that Herophilus and Erasistratus were also aided by patronage from influential people who valued the advancement of scientific knowledge.
However, the use of cadavers in science did not prosper for very long. After the two physicians died, the dissection of human bodies was once again frowned upon. The practice slowly lost popularity over the next few centuries, and by 389 CE, the use of human cadavers had completely disappeared.
This coincided roughly with the burning of Alexandria and the introduction of Christianity to the Roman Empire. Subsequent physicians, like Galen (129-216 CE), despite living before it was completely taboo, had to rely on animal cadavers instead to avoid backlash. Much of Galen’s research, which remained influential for centuries after his death, was based on the anatomy of pigs. This meant that much of his teachings were incorrect, although they remained the core of university training for many hundreds of years.
Resistance to The Use of Cadavers in the Medieval Period
The negative perception surrounding the use of human cadavers continued and was heightened during the medieval period. The practice was completely outlawed by the Christian church, which saw the dissection of human bodies as an act of mutilation.
Christianity taught that the body was only a temporary vessel for the soul that would eventually make its way to heaven or hell. Therefore, there was no need to examine it so closely, and doing so could be dangerous as the human body was associated with shame and sin.
While the Church attempted to prevent the use of cadavers across Europe, some leaders managed to resist. One such example was the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), who decreed that, in order to advance the study of anatomy, a human cadaver should be dissected once every five years. Frederick also ruled that attendance at these events should be compulsory for anyone who wished to train in the field. This did much to bring dissection back into science, despite the Church’s warnings.
Eventually, between 1280 and 1350, other European countries began to recognize the importance of dissecting bodies in order to learn anatomy. In fact, some argued it was the only way to learn anatomy properly.
In Italy, in particular, the use of cadavers in anatomy became extremely popular. For example, the University of Bologna, a center of learning and science, encouraged its students to attend live dissections.
Despite the resistance, the Catholic Church remained against the practice. A Papal Bull issued at the end of the 13th century forbade anyone from mutilating a corpse, including cadavers for scientific dissection.
A Revival: The Use of Cadavers During the Renaissance
The Renaissance was a period characterized and defined by the rebirth of ideas and achievements from the classical age. The old art styles of Ancient Greece and Rome were favored by artists, architects were inspired by classical building techniques and styles, and scientific knowledge was bolstered by the writings of the ancients.
With the rebirth of scientific study, anatomy gained more respect as a scholarly pursuit and was taught in universities across Europe. With this came an increased push for the use of human dissection as a method to understand the human body.
Because of this, the support for the scientific benefit of dissection grew immensely despite still being restricted somewhat by the Church.
The first legal public dissection to be carried out since the Ancient Greeks and Romans was conducted by Mondino de Liuzzi in Bologna in the 14th century. Not long after, the Florentine Academy of Art made an anatomy course compulsory for its artists.
Why did Renaissance Artists Use Cadavers?
The link between anatomy and art could seem to be a random, if not gruesome, one. However, during the Renaissance, the two became closely linked. Inspired by the great artists of the classical period, Renaissance artists strove to produce the most lifelike and accurate drawings of human beings they could. Of course, the best way to sure this level of accuracy was to examine a real human body.
Many Renaissance artists examined live models and considered that enough to learn about human anatomy. Others, however, took the pursuit of accuracy one step further.
These artists saw the benefit of being able to get under the skin and truly understand how the body worked. It was this desire that led to the formation of a mutually beneficial relationship between many artists and anatomists.
Anatomists would often provide artists with demonstrations of anatomy using cadavers. In return, the artists would produce correct anatomical drawings for them to use in their scientific books and pamphlets. The best-known relationship of this kind was probably that of Titian (Tiziano Vecellio, 1488/90-1576) and Andreas Vesalias (1514-1564).
These kinds of relationships were enhanced by the invention of the printing press in the 1430s, which meant authors could produce books on a scale never seen before. As many scientific scholars began to frequently and quickly publish their work, there was an increased demand for detailed, accurate drawings of the human body.
Some artists took this one step further and carried out their own studies of cadavers. Two of the most famous examples of artists who did this were Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (Michelangelo, 1475-1564). In fact, Michelangelo carried out his dissections of cadavers for his art as early as age 17.
According to some sources, Da Vinci carried out 20 examinations of cadavers at the Unversity of Pavia between 1510 and 1511 alongside Marcantonio della Torre, who was a professor of anatomy. However, he recognized the unsettling nature of this kind of hands-on work and warned of “the fear of living through the night hours in the company of quartered and flayed corpses fearful to behold.”
Because these artists spent so much time examining the human form, many of them became experts in anatomy in their own right, and the importance of having this knowledge was recognized among them. In 1560, for example, Michelangelo wrote, “who has not been, or is not a good master of the figure, and especially of anatomy, cannot understand it.”
The 16th-century artist and historian Giorgio Vasari also noted the importance of proper anatomical study for artists and wrote in his Lives of Artists, “again having seen human bodies dissected one knows how the bones lie, and the muscles and sinews, and all order of conditions of anatomy….”
At this point, the religious perspective on the use of cadavers had shifted somewhat. By the height of the Renaissance, it was believed that these drawings acted as reminders of the fact that the human body was created by God. These artists’ intricate recreation of the human body exposed just how complex it truly was.
This, for Christians, only acted as evidence of the fact that God must have created man.
The scientific dissection of human cadavers has a long history dating all the way back to Ancient Greece, but with the rebirth of classical art in the Renaissance, it flourished with considerable influence.
The dissection of human cadavers allowed artists to produce more lifelike and detailed depictions of humans while also allowing anatomists to add illustrations to their scientific books. While it at first appears to be a rather gruesome part of history, the use of cadavers by Renaissance artists allowed for the advancement not only of art but of anatomy too.