Neurosurgeon Dr. Del Maestro’s enduring passion for da Vinci

LEONARDO’S LEGACY

by SAL DIFALCO

While it would ill-serve Leonardo da Vinci on the 500th anniversary of his death to attempt a summary of his accomplishments in the space of this article, it would be a disservice not to commemorate this giant of the Italian Renaissance on this occasion. Perhaps best known for the enigmatic brushstrokes of the Mona Lisa, Leonardo’s genius roamed far beyond the frames of his masterpieces, exploring every facet of aesthetics, science and philosophy, creating and inventing as he went along.

This exploratory creativity was recently on display at Montreal’s McGill University in an exhibition entitled Sir William Osler’s Leonardo da Vinci Collection: Flight, Anatomy and Art curated by Dr. Rolando Del Maestro, the William Feindel Professor Emeritus in Neuro-Oncology at McGill.

Showcasing Leonardo materials gathered by Canadian medical icon Sir William Osler (1849-1919), including 20 giant tomes of the artist’s drawings and manuscripts, the exhibition also featured contributions made by Del Maestro, who boasts one of Canada’s largest private collections of da Vinci-nalia.

Born in Borgo Val di Taro (Borgotaro), a village in northern Italy, Del Maestro came to Canada with his family in 1951. They settled in Petrolia, Ontario. His interest in Leonardo surfaced during his second undergraduate year at Western University. “I took a course on creativity taught by an amazing teacher, Professor Jaroslav Havelka,” says Del Maestro. “He wondered why some individuals were creative. Mozart, who wrote his music with almost no corrections, represented his ideal artist. Mine was an Italian: Leonardo da Vinci—and this started what became a lifelong journey.”

Initially, Del Maestro sought out Leonardo-related books. “Then I began collecting drawings and facsimiles, manuscripts, writings by and about Leonardo, letters about Leonardo,” he explains. “It went on and on. My collection now numbers four or five thousand volumes.”

Del Maestro houses the collection in a private library in Ontario. Among his most prized items are two drawings by Leonardo’s pet pupil, Francesco Melzi. “He often copied Leonardo,” he says, “and Leonardo used many of his drawings for teaching.”

As for his most coveted collectible, Del Maestro quickly responds, “Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting, published in 1651. I’ve been trying to get every remaining copy, including translations, but I’m particularly keen to track down a Soviet edition published in 1934. It’s proving harder to find than the original. Understandable, perhaps.”

As for connections between his own medical practice and Leonardo’s links to the history of medicine, he offers a caveat: “It was always a separate interest.” And, he admits, a hobby.

Del Maestro’s own life journey allowed scant time for deeper Leonardo studies. He received a medical degree from Western in 1973 and a PhD from the University of Uppsala, Sweden, in 1979. In 1981, he joined the Department of Clinical Neurological Sciences at Western, specializing in neuro-oncology and pediatric neurosurgery, and in 1991 became professor of neurosurgery. He also served as director of the brain research laboratories at Western from 1981 to 2000. From 2000 to 2012, he practiced neurosurgery at the Brain

Tumour Research Centre in Montreal. In addition, he has written over 100 papers and book chapters related to his research.

He notes that Leonardo’s anatomical studies were really “a search for the soul or, as he termed it, il senso comune.” Del Maestro’s lecture on Leonardo’s search, given in 2015 to the American Osler Society, offers context: “The concept of the soul has always been associated with a mysterious component linked to the reason and purpose of our individual human existence and has challenged human collective intellect from the dawn of recorded time.”

In 2012, Del Maestro stopped operating and turned to pioneering studies in neurosurgical simulation and artificial intelligence as director of the Neurosurgery Simulation Research and Training Centre at McGill. “I operated in many countries—China, Saudi Arabia, Russia,” he explains. “I found that, when I returned after a year or so, little had changed. The neurosurgical simulation permits dissemination of information and training globally, allowing a standardized system of practice. The aim is for neurosurgeons around the world to achieve the same level of competence.”

One can only wonder how Leonardo would have reacted to such mind-bending technologies as neurosurgery simulation and artificial intelligence. Would he have been delighted or dismayed? Either way, he would have likely had a lot of questions for the good doctor.