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Anatomia Italiana: where anatomy and art intersect

25 Jul 2018

Anatomia Italiana is HAPS-I approved for professional development

If you've ever seen the Mona Lisa, you'll know that she holds your attention longer than most portraits. Her slight smile and sideways glance are subtly captivating. But, it’s no accident: Leonardo da Vinci carefully engineered her that way.

Leonardo da Vinci was fascinated with human anatomy and studied dissections of human faces to delineate the muscles that move the lips, the eyes, the neck, in order to make his portraits as realistic as possible. But da Vinci also used his study of anatomy as a way to understand how the retina works when a viewer looks at a painting. In the Mona Lisa, the result is a masterpiece of art and anatomical study that invites and responds to human interactions.

The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.

It's this tangible connection between art and life science that inspires anatomist Dr. Kevin Petti, of San Diego Miramar College. Each year, Kevin offers a unique professional development programme that lets scientists experience Renaissance Italy's intersecting worlds of art and anatomy, in his innovative study abroad programme: Anatomia Italiana.

Kevin Petti, Ph.D. Anatomia Italiana: Art and Anatomy in Italy

Renaissance Art and Anatomy

The relationship between artists and anatomists during the Renaissance (roughly 1300 to 1600) was deeply symbiotic. European art was turning towards more lifelike portrayals, so artists needed a deeper understanding of how the structures of the body worked together - not only the surface of the body but the muscles and bones that lay beneath. Italian artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, who were interested in exacting the human form in their art, observed physicians at work to learn the layers of muscle and bone structures that formed certain parts of the body. In turn, physicians needed artists to draw illustrations for the high volume of texts coming out in the field of anatomy, made possible by Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press around 1440. 

Da Vinci's Anatomical Manuscript A contains the first accurate depiction of the human backbone.

Da Vinci's 'Anatomical Manuscript A' contains the first accurate depiction of the human backbone.

'A Skull Sectioned' by da Vinci (1489) studies the position of the facial cavities in relation to surface features. 

'A Skull Sectioned' by da Vinci (1489) studies the position of the facial cavities in relation to surface features. 

Dr. Kevin Petti

The hand-in-hand development of anatomy and art in Renaissance Italy intrigues Dr. Kevin Petti. Kevin teaches courses in human anatomy and physiology, human dissection, kinesiology, and health science at San Diego Miramar College.

“I’m fascinated by the fact that when you look at these amazing works of art you really appreciate them, not only from an art standpoint but from a science standpoint,” Kevin says. “You really understand that the discipline of anatomy is directly linked to art, culture, religion...and this connection could only have happened along the Italian peninsula at that particular point in time”

Anatomia Italiana

Inspired by the interplay between art and science, Kevin developed Anatomia Italiana - a series of educational programs that guide participants through 12 days in Italy, focusing on the genesis of anatomy as a science and its influence on the Renaissance masters.

“In Italy, we get a very tangible experience of a special point in time when the science of anatomy was developing and how artists including Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci used anatomical knowledge in their work. Italy is perfect because you get to see the connection right in front of your eyes. It's tangible.”

Participants on the Anatomia Italiana programs visit the lecture halls and dissection theaters of the first modern anatomists, including one of the oldest medical schools in the world, at the 11th-century University of Bologna. They also have the chance to visit the University of Padua's anatomical theater – the oldest surviving theater of its kind. Built in 1595, the theater is still perfectly preserved, down to the original dissection table that remains in the center of the theater.

Kevin Petti in Historic Anatomy Theatre in Padua

Historic Anatomy Theatre, University of Padua. Image: Kevin Petti

Before the construction of Padua’s theater, anatomical dissections were performed on collapsible wooden platforms that would be dismantled immediately after. Though not illegal at the time, human dissection was considered highly taboo. Kevin says, “In that era, if you were a person of science wanting to know the secrets of the body, you’d want to do dissections. But this was very difficult culturally and religiously speaking. The body was God’s greatest creation, the vessel of the soul, the vehicle for the resurrection, right? And to cut it up would be seen as desecration.” However, the University of Padua’s anatomical theater led the way in advancing the study of anatomy in the 17th and 18th centuries, making the benefits of human dissection widely known and eventually reversing public opinion.

Kevin says, “In the modern university sense, anatomy in the medical curriculum began in Italy. With Anatomia Italiana, students learn about the origins of the field of anatomy in Italy, and its intersection with the work of the Renaissance Masters, who dissected bodies as a way to examine the human body and enhance their art.”

The best known of these artists - Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) - were both known to have undertaken detailed anatomical dissections at various points in their long careers. The dissections allowed Renaissance artists to observe and draw elements of the human body which had never been seen before and in accurate detail. For example, Leonardo drew detailed renderings of cirrhosis of the liver and cardiovascular systems, right down to the narrowing of the arteries and coronary blockages.  He was the first to depict the mechanism by which the forearm twists so that our hand can face either up or down. It would be another 200 years before the observation was repeated.

The anatomical accuracy of the artist’s work is astonishing, even with our modern medical knowledge. Kevin Petti notes, “On Anatomia Italiana, I get the students to really look at Leonardo’s images and examine them. Because the question is: how accurate are they? How accurate was Leonardo? I have an online activity where I use a 500-year-old drawing of the human body by Leonardo and I have students drag and drop the correct names over the muscles. When I ask them to name all these muscles in the image they start to see that wow...he really had it down! That’s fun.  And I love that I can teach with his images today, you know? They are that accurate!”

Leonardo da Vinci - Anatomical studies of the shoulder

Da Vinci's Anatomical Studies of the Shoulder.

Anatomia Italiana Programs for Professional Development

The Anatomia Italiana programs are academically based, and participants range from anatomy professors pursuing continuing education to undergraduate students carrying out study abroad programs. But the program is open to anyone with an interest in connecting art and anatomy and who wants to explore the deeper layers of Italian culture, or who simply wish to revisit Europe with a fresh perspective. For academics looking for continuing education in the arts and sciences, the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society Institute (HAPS-I) has approved the Anatomia Italiana travel program as a three-credit graduate course for professional development. Anatomy educators have the option of earning graduate credit through HAPS-I as an additional component of their travel.

Galileo's Lecture Podium, University of Padua

Galileo's Lecture Podium, University of Padua. Image: Kevin Petti

Communicating course material for distance educators and study abroad programs

Kevin explains, “I take 20 to 23 students a few times a year. The students come from all around the world. We don’t meet in person until we arrive in Rome.”

To communicate and deliver the preparation material to his widely dispersed students, Kevin uses Lt – our cloud-based learning platform. He notes “Lt is really useful as an online way to deliver the preparation materials and reading, and I can actually see where everyone is up to with their work.”

“Before I used Lt, I just sent them journal articles and readings as email attachments. Sometimes they’d do the readings, sometimes not.  But using Lt to deliver this material gives me so much more insight – I can actually log in and track where each person is up to in their readings! Then I can remind them to do it. And I’ve added interactive questions into the Lt lessons and I can post videos. I do all kinds of cool things with Lt that makes the background material really accessible and easy to understand in a very interactive fun way.”

“I use Lt as a way to deliver the pre-travel curriculum, which the students need to complete. No-one wants to get to Europe and then spend classroom time learning all of this from scratch! We're in Italy and we only have a short window of time so I want the classroom to be the museums and galleries! And when they are standing in front of this piece of art or in an ancient dissection theatre, I don’t want them to be saying “Uhhh, what am I looking at?”.

To get the most out of each day, Kevin has his students read background material ahead of time. Because Lt is available online, it is a perfect platform for making the material easy to access, whenever and wherever students want.

“Knowing that they’ve done the background work is so worthwhile when we’re standing there in front of an incredible piece of art, or they’re standing in an ancient dissection theater, and I hear them say, “Wow, I didn't realize it would be that big” or “I didn’t know it was so colorful” or “I can’t believe it’s so detailed”. You know that they have the context and are able to really appreciate what they are looking at and experiencing.” 

Historic Anatomy Theatre, University of Bologna

Historic Anatomy Theatre, University of Bologna. Image: Kevin Petti.

Importance of blending science and humanities

Kevin is passionate about the connection between sciences with the arts, and about offering opportunities to balance science and art in education. He says, “I believe that it's very important for students and educators in the sciences to have a humanities component to stimulate the brain in both ways. But often there isn’t the opportunity. Medical students focus on chemistry and physics, and the pressure is incredibly intense -  so the humanities really take a back seat. But anatomy is a compulsory subject for medical students and when I put the Anatomia Italiana modules together, and they do the readings and we go to Italy for 12 days and experience the connection between anatomy and art... well they just fall in love with the humanities side of it and appreciate what it gives back to their studies of life science. And this is good because it teaches them to think a little bit differently and I like to think that we are helping to give them a broader, more balanced education.”

A balanced education certainly didn’t do Leonardo any harm. I’m sure the Mona Lisa would agree.


Join Anatomia Italiana in 2019.

2019 is of special significance because it marks the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death. In recognition, the Royal Trust Collection will exhibit hundreds of Leonardo’s anatomical drawings at Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, the largest exhibition of Leonardo’s work in over 65 years. In order to include this rare exhibition, Kevin Petti is leading a special Winter version of Anatomia Italiana which will have participants spend 4 nights in London to take in the exhibition, before traveling to Amsterdam and Paris. Click here to inquire about the Winter 2019 programme.

Professional Development? Anatomia Italiana is a HAPS-I professional development graduate course.

For academics looking for continuing education in the arts and sciences, the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society Institute (HAPS-I) has approved the Anatomia Italiana travel program as a three-credit graduate course for professional development. Anatomy educators have the option of earning graduate credit through HAPS-I as an additional component of their travel.

For more information:

To inquire about the upcoming Anatomia Italiana programmes

Further details on upcoming Connecting Art and Science: The Cultural History of Art and Anatomy in Italy  programmes on the SDSU website

Anatomia Italiana is HAPS-I approved for professional development

By Sina Walker

Scientific Writer

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