Renaissance Man

To accurately paint the human body, Leonardo da Vinci turned to Science.

Ransacking the bodies of cadavers, Leonardo scavenged bits of anatomical knowledge. The Renaissance artist used his scientific investigation to nourish the beauty of his works: the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and the Vitruvian Man.

Glancing around Robert DePalma’s office, it is hard to decide what he studies. Something to do with dinosaurs – on his desk is the skull of a T. rex-looking predator, the arm-bone of a Pachycephalosaurus and several monstrous vertebrae. But his cave-like graduate student office in the bottom floor of the museum also houses modern animal skeletons – an iguana, an emu, a heron and other birds.

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Robert holding a skull.

Robert reconstructs dinosaurs. But not in the traditional sense, putting fractured bones together like puzzle pieces; instead he goes whole-hog, adding tendons, muscle, skin and pigment. Like Leonardo, Robert builds the flesh around bones – looking at muscle attachment points, postulating on joint range of motion, and pondering skin coloring – all while using the bodies of modern, currently-living animals as guides.

Sinornithosaurus (sign-ornitho-sore-us) is one of his newest projects. A recent discovery, the dinosaur was the first found to perhaps use venom. In recreating Sinornithosaurus, Robert said that he had to take the skeletal structures of birds into extra consideration. “It had a neck like an emu or ostrich. I used them to help with my model because they have a neck anatomy very similar to that of Sinornithosaurus.” For the predatory Sinornithosaurus, he used eight modern critters, among them monitor lizards, Gila monsters, alligators and turkeys.

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Robert's drawing of Sinornithosaurus
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On his desk: a lungfish skeleton, an iguana skull and a heron skull.

Decked out in Paleontologist khaki, he describes his work as interdisciplinary. To bring his work to life, Robert’s talents must resemble those of a Renaissance man. Not only must he have knowledge of many fields of science, he must have a hand and an eye for art: sculpting, drawing, painting and digital media.

Leonardo, among other thinkers of the Renaissance, hungered to compile and integrate his skills. His drawings bustle with pursuits of engineering and biology: on one page there is a curled fetus in the womb, on another a new design for a scythed chariot, bristling with blades.

“Renaissance” translates to “rebirth,” an apt phrase for Robert’s work. “Most of my research,” he says, the claw on his necklace swaying back and forth, “Occurs in my cave,” – his version of Leonardo’s workshop. A workshop where, like Leonardo, Robert brings new life to bare bones.

One of Leonardo's flying machine drawings

For more of Leonardo's drawings, visit http://www.drawingsofleonardo.org