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Unformatted text preview: corpses and lift the corrugated tubes and gristle
and muscles and bones and organs from within those cadavers and
line those pieces up neatly along the edges of his oiled dissection table.
Curiosity, too, drew him into thoughts of the sky and flying machines,
tanks, submarines, the Mona Lisa, and the Last Supper. And curiosity
finally compelled him to seek the underpinnings of human sexuality
and the anatomy of sexual intercourse.
For years, Leonardo da Vinci had studied human anatomy—
patiently slicing through skin and muscle, bone and viscera, cracking
skulls and puncturing eyeballs—undressing the dead in the most intimate of ways. On top of that, he was a meticulous observer. Nothing
escaped his attention. By the low lights of his candles he drew each of
his dissections and made careful notes in the pages of his notebooks—
every tendon, every fascia, each nerve found its way there. In his work
he was methodical, meticulous, nearly maniacal in his search for the A Brief History of Sex 13 truth. He knew human bodies like few others. Leonardo’s anatomical
drawings rank among the most beautiful ever made.
Leonardo’s lifetime of work led him to envision a great treatise on the
nature of human beings—a book that would place him alongside Galen
as one of the greatest anatomists of all time, a book that would lay the lives
of men and women open like tapestries colored only by the fluids that
make us human. This book would begin with the intricacies of human
sex and the moment of human conception; after all, this was where each
life began. Then he would work his way through the complexities of life
in the womb, a human birth, a child, a man, a woman, each with all the
nerves and muscles and bones and blood vessels. The book would end,
as each of us does, in the contradictions of old age and the wrinkled face
of death. It would be the culmination of his life’s work.3
Leonardo da Vinci would have his great book, and it would open
with something no one had ever seen or even attempted before.
Inside his studio, Leonardo began to sketch. A man he had known,
perhaps, or maybe all the men he had known took shape beneath his
fingers as he worked across the page. But not a whole man. Instead
Leonardo laid out for our inspection a man cut, from skull tip to scrotum, in half. Once he had the man’s outline in place, Leonardo’s hand
pulled out the shape of a heavy-breasted woman, headless and split like
a gourd from pubis to clavicle.
Spines and hearts, bones and brains fell onto the page. Muscles
took shape and backs stiffened. The last part must have presented a
particular challenge. Penises he could draw, he’d seen dozens, even in
cross-section, and vaginas as well. But he had never seen this moment
as an anatomist, from the inside. He was curious, though. He added the
erect penis, opened the vagina slightly, and pulled the two together.
“I expose to men the origin of their first, and perhaps second, reason for existing.”4 With those tantalizing words Leonardo unveiled one
of his now lesser-known drawings: The Copulation, a large, elaborate
sketch of a man and a woman engaged in the most essential union of
Though Leonardo surely wasn’t the first to wonder what sex might
look like, he was the first, so far as I know, to draw in such detail two
humans so intimately coupled. Curiously, the part he knew least about 14 Between XX and XY is the part he got most nearly right, or so it seems from our present perspective. The union of the man and the woman—the part he wrought
from his imagination—lies mostly correct upon his page. The man’s
penis falls nearly where it should within the woman’s vagina. The shape
and placement are off a little, but not by much. The depth of penetration, the placement of the organs, and the angles of the bodies all are
nearly correct. But the part Leonardo knew, or should have known most
fully—the simple truths of human anatomy—is rich with errors.
From the woman’s uterus, a duct extends into her abdomen,
passes through her chest, and ends inside the nipple of a single breast.
To modern-day anatomists it seems no such duct exists. In the man,
another duct extends from the penis and reaches, via the spinal cord,
to the brain. People have speculated that Leonardo put it there to carry
sperm from its birthplace, which he believed was inside a man’s brain,
and deliver it at just the right moment to the tip of his penis. The man’s
penis contains two tubes—one apparently for urine, the other for sperm.
Of course, many have proposed a
direct connection between a man’s
penis and his brain, but neither
of these ducts appears in modern anatomical drawings. Sperm
comes from the testicles, not the
brain, and a single tube carries
both sperm and urine, though not
simultaneously, through the shaft
of the penis.
Finally, in Leonardo’s rendering there is another tube, a blood
vessel perhaps, that runs directly
from the penis and scrotum to the
heart. Possibly he put it there to
The Copulation: a sketch by Leonardo
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- Spring '14