iPad Book Review: Leonardo da Vinci - Anatomy By Touch Press
Reviewed by Guy Dayen
Anatomical study came up in fictional form in the last review I wrote, for "Frankenstein, for iPad and iPhone". In a nice instance of serendipity, here it is once more, from real life this time, in the new iPad book, "Leonardo da Vinci - Anatomy".
Leonardo da Vinci is most well-known for his paintings of the Mona Lisa and of The Last Supper. Almost as famous are the myriad of drawings he left, detailing the many inventions and technological improvements he designed while living in Italy and France. One facet of his work, however, has remained in relative obscurity: the extensive study he made of human and animal anatomy.
The bulk of this work is now in the Royal Collection, an amazing collection of documents held in trust by the Queen, in the name of the British people. This incredible body of work is housed in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. As such, it is inaccessible to the general public. Up until now, only selected experts ever got the privilege of gazing upon these wonderful pieces.
This is no longer the case, at least in the virtual world, with the release of "Leonardo da Vinci - Anatomy". For the first time, anyone with an interest in art, in Leonardo or in anatomy can examine each drawing in amazing detail. Each one of the masterful illustrations has been digitized at high resolution, and can be examined in minute and glorious detail on the iPad's retina screen. The drawings look great on the older iPads as well, but they are eye-popping on the new high -definition screen. "Leonardo da Vinci - Anatomy" is a must-have digital coffee table book for the newest generation iPad owners. There's no better way to showcase their new toy !
The digital book is divided in two general sections: an extensive overview of Leonardo's artistic achievements, with an emphasis on his anatomical studies, and the collection of the drawings themselves.
The introduction section to the drawings is extremely well done, and quite detailed. It starts with a brief summary of Leonardo's life and then goes through the two main periods of Leonardo da Vinci's studies of anatomy, which were separated by the time he spent working on the Last Supper. As the reader progresses through the lengthy notes, interactive drawings automatically appear to illustrate and illuminate various points made in the narrative. At the end of each smaller section of the introductory notes, various experts appear in short video talks and expand on that section's particular focus. A nice touch is that these short videos start playing by themselves, so the multimedia experience is seamless. Presenters include Martin Clayton of the Royal Library; Helen King, professor at the Open University; Vishy Mahadevan, professor at the Royal College of Surgeons of England; and Peter H. Abrahams, professor at Warwick Medical School. Their contributions to the artistic, historical and medical aspects of Leonardo's work add valuable insights to the discussion, and frankly, they are very interesting to listen to. I really enjoyed hearing what they had to say.
After going through the introductory notes, the reader is quite prepared to delve into the drawings made by Leonardo in his attempts to understand human anatomy and to perfect his skills as the consummate artist of his age.
There are 268 drawings in total, and they can be viewed individually or by themed collections. The drawings are organized by time periods as well as by the medium used by da Vinci: metal point, chalk and pen and ink. Readers can also review the interactive drawings that they saw as they read through the introduction., and explore the animal drawings that Leonardo made as he was beginning his studies..
A particularly interesting aspect of the collection is the Ultraviolet section, in which drawings can be examined as they appear now in the Royal Library Collection, or under "virtual ultraviolet" light. This reveals details that have faded with time or were erased by Leonardo as he was working and refining the drawings. It's truly fascinating to see the alternate version of the few drawings that were treated in this manner. I hope more drawings will be added to this section if TouchPress releases updates to this book. Another great feature is that you can see these drawings with Leonardo's notes translated to English for easy perusal.
One more really fun feature is the "Mirror" option, which lets you examine Leonardo's mirror writing in the correct orientation. This can be called up by the reader, and also appears automatically at certain points in the book. Of course, this is really only useful for those readers who understand period Italian!
This collection of drawings is truly fantastic. Anyone interested in art in general or in Leonardo in particular will relish these illustrations. To be sure, anyone with any interest in anatomy will find these drawings endlessly fascinating. Sadly, Leonardo never published this body of work. Had he done so, we might today divide the history of our understanding of human anatomy as pre and post Da Vinci.
It must also be said that, in the end, da Vinci never made the intellectual leap that would have led to a true understanding of the circulation of human blood. Despite his prodigious intellect, he was a still a man influenced by his time, and he stayed with the accepted conventions of the period as far as the functioning of the human heart was concerned. Still, his genius shines through in each and every drawing and it is abundantly clear that had these drawings been published at the time, Leonardo da Vinci would be regarded to this day as one of the pioneers of modern anatomical science.
I can't recommend this book highly enough. It is gorgeous to look at on the new iPad, it does a great job of explaining the subject matter to the layman and it does all this in a very entertaining manner. Readers of this book are in for many pleasant hours indeed. It is well worth the price of admission and I look forward to the next treasure to come out of the British Royal Collection.