The analysis of the interior of the human body by dissection was one of the most extraordinary steps forward in knowledge taken in that supposedly backward era, the Middle Ages. The historian of medieval science James Hannam has described it as ‘one of the most surprising events in the history of natural science’.
Thomas Eakins, 1889
There had been a powerful taboo against the cutting up and examination of dead bodies in almost every previous culture.
Classical knowledge of anatomy, as laid out in the writings of the ancient medical authority Galen, was largely based on the examination of dead animals, particularly pigs and apes.
Neither Roman nor Islamic regulations allowed the dissection of human corpses. Like several of the innovations that shaped modern life, this began in medieval Italy. (The invention of spectacles is another example.)
The first recorded dissections took place in the medical faculty of the great University at Bologna in the early fourteenth century. The teacher would expound from a lectern while assistants sliced up the cadaver of an executed criminal and the audience looked on from benches around.
This was probably the kind of dissection that Ghiberti advised artists to attend. The dissections that Michelangelo told Condivi about were clearly private, ad hoc affairs in which the artist was not just an observer but an active investigator. Michelangelo was one of the first artists to do this, but there was a precedent.
According to Vasari, Antonio del Pollaiuolo ‘understood about painting nudes in a way more modern than that of previous masters, and he dissected many bodies to view their anatomy’.
However, getting the necessary specimens – dead bodies that no one minded being cut up – was far from easy. Even a celebrated anatomist such as Andreas Vesalius (1514– 64), half a century later, admitted to resorting to grave-robbing, quickly flaying the skin off a dead woman so her relatives wouldn’t be able to recognize her, and – in a particularly macabre scientific mission – at dusk secretly retrieving the singed limbs of a criminal who had been burnt at the stake.
Gayford, Martin. Michelangelo: His Epic Life (p. 153). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.