David and anatomy, Michelangelo and the study of corpses
Looking at the statue of David, housed in the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence, as well as all the other masterpieces by Michelangelo what strikes is his extraordinary ability to represent in detail the anatomy of the human body. Michelangelo is indeed universally recognized for his extraordinary skill in molding marble, producing statues that looked real for their accurate anatomical details. But how could Michelangelo reproduce with such accuracy and precision anatomical details?
Well, like many famous masters of his time and antiquity Michelangelo based his art on a perfect imitation of nature. So at the level of human body shape that meant the study of live models but also the study and dissection of corpses, to be able to study muscles, tendons and blood vessels.
Michelangelo, however, was neither the first nor the last to have turned to the study of anatomy on dead bodies, even Leonardo Da Vinci did it. But while the latter studied the corpses at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, Michelangelo - 23 years younger - practiced anatomy in secret at the Church of the Santo Spirito thanks to his friendship with the prior. It was in fact an exchange: Michelangelo created for the church of Santo Spirito a crucifix in wood that was placed above the altar and the church prior made available to him certain rooms where he could dissect the cadavers to study anatomy, a practice that, at the time, was prohibited by law.
Like all great masters, Michelangelo never ceased to learn and study. It is said that he continued dissections for the study of anatomy even in old age, well beyond the creation of David, and the other of his most famous works.