Leonardo da Vinci's work on human anatomy has been greatly misunderstood, according to new research. He cut up cadavers not only better to understand how the body works but also to search for the soul, writes Paul Bompard.
This was as practical an issue as astronomy or bird flight for da Vinci and his contemporaries, but it brought him into conflict with the Catholic church.
Domenico Laurenza, a researcher at Sienna University's faculty of literature and philosophy, said: "The theory that the church objected to da Vinci dissecting bodies because human dissection was forbidden is totally wrong. Modern historians have tended to neglect, underestimate and discount the philosophical aspects of da Vinci's work."
Dr Laurenza studied a letter written by da Vinci to his patron Giuliano de Medici in which the artist complained that people in the Vatican were trying to stop his dissections. Da Vinci hoped that de Medici would put in a word on his behalf with his brother, Pope Leo X.
There is ample evidence that there was no objection at the time to carrying out autopsies in hospitals to further medical knowledge. But da Vinci's search for the location and nature of the soul was objectionable from the contemporary philosophical point of view.
Dr Laurenza said: "The church's official teaching maintained that the soul had a divine origin and was 'infused' into the body by a miracle immediately before birth, at the conclusion of the process of formation of the new human being. And that, equally miraculously, the soul quit the body at the moment of death."
In 1513, Leo X issued a papal bull stating that natural philosophers, the scientific researchers of the era, were expected to use logical reasoning only to support the teachings of the church regarding the nature of the soul and its divine origin.
When possible, da Vinci explored the cadavers of stillborn infants or pregnant women who had died in childbirth. Dr Laurenza thinks he was trying to pinpoint the moment of the "implanting" of the soul or its passage from parent to child.
The drawings of these foetuses are now in the Windsor collection and are on display to the public at the Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London, until February 2004.
Dr Laurenza recently presented his findings at the annual conference of the Leonardo Library in Vinci, near Florence.