Da Vinci drawings go on display in Edinburgh as exhibition explores history of anatomy

Curator Sophie Goggins with an anatomical study by Leonardo da Vinci, one of the exhibits in the National Museum of Scotland’s new exhibition, Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life. Picture: Neil Hanna

Sketches created by the Italian artist during dissections of more than 30 human corpses in the 16th century are among the star attractions in a new show at the National Museum of Scotland, which opens on Saturday.

Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life how his work would have transformed knowledge and understanding of anatomy, but remained almost unknown until around 1900.

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The exhibition recalls how Edinburgh’s growing reputation as a center of excellence for studying anatomy led to demand for bodies outstripping supply in the center and leading to widespread problems with “graverobbing” and bodysnatching.

Curator Dr Ailsa Hutton preparing for the opening of Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life, the new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland. Picture: Neil Hanna

Much of the show, which features a coffin and a “mortsafe” designed to deter graverobbers, focuses on the infamous 19th century murderers William Burke and William Hare, who claimed 16 victims whose bodies were sold to the Edinburgh anatomy lecturer Robert Knox. It recalls how Hare evaded justice after agreeing to give evidence against his accomplice, who was executed in the Lawnmaket before more than 20,000 onlookers. Among the objects in the exhibition are “life masks” of Burke and Hare, which were taken after the pair had been arrested, court papers from the trail of Burke and his wife Helen, who was found not proven, and a written confession by Burke, penned before he was hung and dissected himself.

The exhibition explores how anatomy lecturers competed for students amid increasing demand for “hands-on” experiences of dissections in classes. A petition signed by nearly 250 Edinburgh University medical students calling for more bodies to be made available is among the objects on display.

Others include a uniform of the Edinburgh Old Town Guard at the height of the city’s “bodysnatching” problems and a model of a watchtower built to deter graveyobbers for St Cuthbert’s Kirkyard in the west end.

Other highlights include a full-body anatomical model by pioneering French anatomist and model maker Louis Auzoux, and drawings and paintings depicting some of the earliest anatomy lecturers around Europe, and centuries-old surgical instruments.

An anatomical study of the veins and muscles of the arm, as drawn by Leonardo da Vinci. Picture: Royal Collection Trust

The exhibition, which runs until 30 October, demonstrates how the history of medical study in Edinburgh can be traced almost to the doorstep of the museum.

Dr Ailsa Hutton, curator of modern and rural history, said: “We really wanted to create a real sense of Edinburgh with the exhibition as so much of the story that we are telling happened very short distances away.

“Edinburgh gradually became such a center for learning and anatomy was quite a central part of that. But as demand for anatomy classes grew so did the demand for bodies to dissect.

“The exhibition looks at how common it became for anatomists to acquire bodies from graverobbers and how it led to nightwatchmen being employed and watchtowers being built in graveyards. some of which can still be seen in the city to this day.”

Curator Dr Tacye Phillipson with the skeleton and death mask of infamous 19th century Edinburgh murderer William Burke. Picture: Neil Hanna

Dr Tacye Phillipson, senior curator of modern science, said: “Anatomical knowledge is crucial to medicine, and Edinburgh was a key center for medical teaching and the development of modern medicine.

“However, this work relied on the dissection of bodies, the sourcing of which was often controversial and distressing.”

Etchings by Leonardo da Vinci are going on display at the National Museum of Scotland as part of its exhibition Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life. Picture: Royal Collection Trust
Curator Sopie Goggins with a model used by French anatomist Louis Auzoux. Picture: Neil Hanna
Curator Dr Ailsa Hutton with the skeleton of William Burke. Picture: Neil Hanna
Miniature coffins discovered by schoolboys hunting for rabbits on Arthur’s Seat will be on display as part of the new National Museum of Scotland exhibition.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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