Anatomies: The Human Body, Its Parts and The Stories They Tell Paperback – 7 Feb 2013
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Magnificent, inspired. He writes like a latter-day Montaigne. Stimulating scientific hypotheses, bold philosophic theories, illuminating quotations and curious facts. I recommend it to all (Telegraph *****)
Splendid, highly entertaining, chock-full of insights ... It inserts fascinating scientific snippets and anecdotes about our organs into the wider history of our changing understanding of our bodies (Sunday Times)
A relentlessly entertaining cultural history of the human body ... brims with fascinating details, infectious enthusiasm ... the terrain he covers is so richly brought to life (Guardian)
Elegant and informative ... For Aldersey-Williams, [the body] is a thing of wonder and a repository of fascinating facts (Mail on Sunday ****)
About the Author
Hugh Aldersey-Williams studied natural sciences at Cambridge. He is the author of several books exploring science, design and architecture and has curated exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Wellcome Collection. His previous book Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements was a Sunday Times Bestseller and has been published in many languages around the world. He lives in Norfolk with his wife and son.
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P.S. Did you know that "Leonardo da Vinci may have been the first to assemble an inventory of drawn representations of human facial features, which he did in order to be able to teach fellow artists how to produce recognizable portraits based on only a brief glance at their subject" ? I didn't. Now, I can't find a reference to Leonardo in the References section at the back of the book so this will need more investigation by me because it's too tempting a titbit of information for me to let pass, esp. as I know something about Leonardo's faces but not that much. Can anybody suggest a publication that might lead me in the direction of finding out more about this? My interest in the human face stems from portrait painting and the ability of some artists to "get to the heart" of a person using only paint on canvas. The point of this last comment is that this book has stimulated curiosity and isn't that what reading is all about? Another good reason to buy it and enjoy reading it.
Historically, the workings of the body were little known or understood even in a small way until the 15th Century and much is owed to the anatomical drawings made by Leonardo da Vinci. He broke many taboos by either participating in but certainly by illustrating the body and its internal structures far more precisely than was previously allowed - the Church did not support the concept in general and was especially aghast at his anatomical studies of the pregnant woman and her developing foetus. So detailed and accurate were his drawings that many continue to be used to this day in modern books on medicine and anatomy.
Much is owed to him and it could be said that upon the backbone of his scientific-artistic studies followed many others determined to answer previously unanswered questions. Da Vinci was less concerned with function than structure or form and limited his works to that which was immediately apparent. Little further was achieved until the 17-18th Centuries, until when little was understood and much based upon quackery and unfounded theories - hence the frequent use of leeches and blood-letting as cures for many ills, and after which the pace fastened until almost every last historical question had been answered. The science continues with work based upon genetics, which was a subject not even contemplated until Mendel and Darwin in the 19th Century, but there are some areas of the body, the brain being one, that are less fully understood even today although work continues.
This book provides that history, investigating it from the viewpoints of primarily the science, and then via art, literature and history. The book covers its subject as a complex of several aspects of investigation and does not therefore restrict itself to any one to the exclusion of others. It is not purely a book about medicine, anatomy, art, science in general, or history but includes something of all.
A book that could be of value to many, regardless of the discipline of greatest individual interest. There is little or nothing in this book that could not be found in several others, nothing innovatory and no new skeletons (if you pardon the anatomical pun) are exposed. What is fresh is its cross-discipline approach and the absence of too much scientific or other less widely-understood terminology.
If you love reading, then Anatomies may well be something you want to add to your list. Always interesting and informative, it is a somewhat random walk through medical history and the parts of the body, supplemented with art and culture, and a smattering of religion. Fig leaves, for example, are explored in great depth, not only for their very particular artistic design, but also for the bizarre coincidences of history which led to them being deployed in much semi-nude art from the Renaissance onwards.
However, this book has little to lift it above the level of informational entertainment for the already erudite. For me, it is an interesting read but no more than that.
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