Art and neuroscience in Renaissance Italy

Lorenzo LORUSSO1 and Sherry GINN2
1Neurology Department, "M. Mellini" Hospital Chiari, Italy; and 2Psychology Department, Wingate University, Wingate, North Carolina, USA

The Renaissance saw the first systematic anatomical and physiological studies of the brain and human body because scientists, for the first time in centuries, were allowed to dissect human bodies for study. Renaissance artists were frequently found at dissections and their attention to detail can be observed in their products. Scientists themselves were increasingly artistic, and they created astonishing anatomical models that can still be studied.

Prior to the Renaissance knowledge of the nervous system was provided by the Roman physician, Galen, who had generalized human anatomy from his study of Barbary apes. However, the increasing secularization of Italian society during the Renaissance contributed to this systematic study of the inner body. Opinions about brain and human dissection changed during the Renaissance as notomia, based upon careful observation of human bodies, was born. It should be noted here that the word notomia was defined differently in Renaissance Italy than today. During the Renaissance the word meant dissection and was used to refer to a method of research, not a discipline of knowledge. Nevertheless, because notomia was such a new discipline, frequent mistakes were made, even at the dissecting table, and these “mistakes” can be observed in the works of painters known to have attended dissections.

Several treatises were written, by Ghiberti [1378-1455], Alberti [1404-1472] and Cellini [1500-1571], to name a few, extolling the reasons for studying anatomy and the effects such study would have on the painter and the sculptor. For this reason many Renaissance artists worked with anatomists, attending dissections and drawing body parts as they were removed. Examples included Michelangelo [1475-1564] working with Realdo Columbo and Leonardo da Vinci [1452-1519] working with Marcantonio della Torre. In addition to sculpture and painting, Renaissance artists displayed their products by engraving their works on copper as well as developing new and improved methods of printmaking.

The cross-fertilization of art and science in the Renaissance resulted in more scientific analyses of neuroanatomy as well as more creative ways in which such analyses could be depicted. Both art and science benefited from the reciprocal ways in which the two influenced each other even as they provided new ways of explaining the mysteries of the human body and mind.


Session XI
Saturday, 9 July 2005, 10.00 - 10.30 am

Tenth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN) and
Tenth Meeting of the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN)

St. Andrews, Scotland, 2005