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Unformatted text preview: vide the blood needed for the
da Vinci circa 1493. Reproduced with
man’s erection. Perhaps he put it
permission from the Royal Collection,
there to tie sex to love. Regardless,
no one today sees that tube. A Brief History of Sex 15 Like Galen before him, Leonardo saw things that we no longer see,
things we now believe never existed. How could that have happened?
How could an anatomist as skilled as Leonardo, a man so painstakingly
accurate at other times, have made such gross errors? Of course, the
short answer is that no one knows, and no one ever will. Whatever
motivated Leonardo died with him.
But it is interesting that, at the time, Catholic Church doctrine fit a
lot better with Leonardo’s image of two tubes through the penis, which
would keep pure sperm “unpolluted” by urine. In addition, over a thousand years before Leonardo, Hippocrates had proposed that the brain
produced sperm and delivered it to the penis, even though Hippocrates
never saw such a duct either. The Church also liked that idea, because it
separated the holy act of reproduction from the base function of elimination. Old ideas die hard, and political ideas backed by the strong arm of
governing religious institutions fitted with the talons of the Spanish Inquisition also acquire a certain attractiveness they might otherwise lack.
One way or another, Leonardo clearly drew something that those
who look today cannot see.
Only a few years after Leonardo’s death, another young man drawn by
the siren song of anatomy set upon the task of revolutionizing the science and once and for all laying to rest the ignorance of the ancients.
That man was Andreas Vesalius, who, at the peak of his career as anatomist and physician at the University of Padua in Italy, embarked on an
assault on the work of Galen. To Vesalius’s great good fortune, a local
judge took an interest in the anatomist’s work and saw to it that the
bodies of executed criminals found their way into Vesalius’s dissection
theater. Vesalius hired an artist, probably Jan Stephan van Calcar, a student of Titian in Venice, to draw from the dissections. Because of this
artistic input, the resulting drawings were superior—more accurate and
intricate—to any that had come before. In 1555, Vesalius gathered van
Calcar’s drawings into the classic work of anatomy De Humani Corporis
The Fabrica represented the first major change since Galen. In fact,
many of Vesalius’s findings directly contradicted those of Galen. So great 16 Between XX and XY were those contradictions that some of the most learned scholars of
the time, who revered Galen, severely criticized Vesalius for the Fabrica.
Vesalius replied that the ones who deserved the criticism were those
who mindlessly followed the works of Galen and couldn’t see Galen’s
errors for themselves. Despite the critics, the Fabrica quickly became
regarded as the first truly accurate representation of human anatomy.
Finally, people thought, the anatomists had it right. The ignorance of
the past now lay buried beneath the rich soil
of modern truth.
But among all of Vesalius’s criticisms of
Galen’s work lay a single nugget of agreement—the similarity of human genitalia.
Vesalius and van Calcar laid out the vagina
as a long tube that looks very much like the
shaft of a penis. At the external end of the
vulva the tissues are gathered into the shape
of the glans of the penis and covered with
pubic hair. At the opposite end, the uterus
acquires the shape of a scrotum.
The similarity of the sexes in these drawings was apparent to all, and when another
anatomist, Juan Valverde de Amusco, published his Historia de la composición del cuerpo
humano in 1556 in Venice, he followed
Vesalius’s lead. In his drawings, women’s
genitalia also looked remarkably like those
From Vesalius and his disciples this vision
The female genitalia as seen
spread. Nearly every drawing of women’s genby Vesalius, circa 1540.
italia for the next three hundred years would
The uterus is at the top, the
look like those first created by Vesalius and
vagina and vulva below. The
Valverde de Amusco. For most of the first
Illustrations from the Works
two millennia of recorded history, men and
of Andreas Vesalius, World
women appeared more alike than they ever
Publishing Company. A Brief History of Sex 17 Believing Is Seeing
Looking at some of the drawings of Leonardo, Vesalius, and Valverde
de Amusco, my first temptation is to believe that the anatomists who
created them simply lied about what they saw—just deleted, reshaped,
and created things to suit their expectations and popular beliefs. But
these were some of the best-trained and most critical observers alive.
They sought the truth, especially Leonardo. I cannot easily believe that
he would have intentionally lied about what he saw simply to pay homage to currently popular ideas among anatomists and the whims of the
Catholic Church. Nor can I believe anything similar about Vesalius,
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This document was uploaded on 02/04/2014.
- Spring '14