Leonardo has become renowned as a dissecting artist, probing, as legend tells us, the forbidden inner secrets of decaying corpses in the face of what he himself acknowledged as the repellent aspects of under taking 'an anatomy'. Supposedly, this was an illicit and sacrilegious activity, which placed him outside the realms of the church. Late in Leonardo's career in papal Rome, one of the troublesome German technicians denounced his dissections of the Pope, but the drawn and written records of Leonardo's anatomical investigations tell a generally different story. The one fully documented and comprehensive dissection of a complete human cadever-probobly the only one he conducted- was of a 'centenarian' whose 'sweet death' Leonardo witnessed in the Hospital of Sta Maria Nuova in the winter of 1507-8. Claiming to be 100 years old, the vecchio (old man) was presumably part of the systems of consent, involving the hospital, that allowed the artist to conduct an autopsy, followed no doubt by a proper burial.
Such a procedure was more likely punished than legend suggests. Leonardo certainly conducted other human dissections, but these seem to have been of particular parts or systems of the body.
Leonardo particularly delights in the supremely ingenious system of strings and stays in the hand. He called the hand 'the instrument of instruments' in his notebooks. The interpretation of the flexor tendons in the fingers, hailed by the ancient anatomist Galen as the perfect manifestation of divine design, receives the benefit of a separate, inset illustration between the two main drawings of the dissected inner surface of the hand. The way that the tendons interpenetrate ensures that they can operate with power and economy within a self contained system. And so often when he has to demonstrate the actions of the muscles and the bones, he reduces...