Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’ | History Hit

Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’

'Vitruvian Man' by Leonardo da Vinci
Image Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A man of genius

Leonardo Da Vinci was an Italian polymath of the High Renaissance. He epitomised the Renaissance humanist ideal, and was an accomplished painter, draughtsman, engineer, scientist, theorist, sculptor, and architect. Much of our understanding of Leonardo’s work and processes comes from his extraordinary notebooks, which recorded sketches, drawings and diagrams regarding topics as diverse as botany, cartography and palaeontology. He has also been revered for his technological ingenuity, for example, he produced designs for flying machines, concentrated solar power, an adding machine, and an armoured fighting vehicle.

In around 1490, Leonardo created one of his most iconic drawings, translated as The Proportions of the Human Figure after Vitruvius – commonly known as Vitruvian Man. This was created on a piece of paper measuring 34.4 × 25.5 cm, and the image was created using pen, light brown ink and a hint of brown watercolour wash. The drawing was meticulously prepared. Callipers and a pair of compasses were used to make precise lines, and exact measurements marked off with small ticks.

Using these markers, Leonardo created the image of a nude man facing forward, portrayed twice in different stances: one with his arms and legs stretched up and apart, and another with his arms held horizontal with his legs together. These two figures are framed by a large circle and square, and the man’s fingers and toes are arranged as to neatly reach the lines of these shapes, but not cross them.

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An ancient idea

The drawing represents Leonardo’s concept of the ideal male figure: perfectly proportioned and exquisitely formed. This was inspired by the writings of Vitruvius, a Roman architect and engineer who lived during the 1st century BC. Vitruvius penned the only substantial architecture treatise that survives from antiquity, De architectura. He believed the human figure is the principal source of proportion, and in Book III, Chapter 1, he discussed the proportions of man:

“If in a man lying with his face upward, and his hands and feet extended, from his navel as the centre, a circle be described, it will touch his fingers and toes. It is not alone by a circle, that the human body is thus circumscribed, as may be seen by placing it within a square. For measuring from the feet to the crown of the head, and then across the arms fully extended, we find the latter measure equal to the former; so that lines at right angles to each other, enclosing the figure, will form a square.”

A 1684 depiction of Vitruvius (right) presenting De Architectura to Augustus

Image Credit: Sebastian Le Clerc, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It was these ideas which inspired Leonardo’s famous drawing. The Renaissance artist gave credit to his ancient predecessor with a caption above: “Vitruvius, architect, says in his architectural work that the measurements of man are in nature distributed in this manner”. The words below the image also reflect Leonardo’s meticulous approach:

“The length of the outspread arms is equal to the height of the man. From the hairline to the bottom of the chin is one-tenth of the height of the man. From below the chin to the top of the head is one-eighth of the height of the man. From above the chest to the top of the head is one-sixth of the height of the man.”

Part of a bigger picture 

It has often been perceived not only as an expression of the perfect human body, but a representation of the proportions of the world. Leonardo believed the workings of the human body to be an analogy, in microcosm, for the workings of the universe. It was cosmografia del minor mondo – a ‘cosmography of the microcosm’. Once more, the body is framed by a circle and square, which have been used as symbolic representations of the sky and earth since the Middle Ages

‘Vitruvian Man’ by Leonardo da Vinci, an illustration of the human body inscribed in the circle and the square derived from a passage about geometry and human proportions in Vitruvius’ writings

Image Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Historians have speculated that Leonardo based his work on the Golden Ratio, a mathematical calculation which translates into an aesthetically pleasing visual result. It is sometimes known as the Divine Proportion. However, Leonardo is thought to have drawn Vitruvian Man by studying the Golden Ratio though Luca Pacioli’s work, Divina proportione.

Today, Vitruvian Man has become an iconic and familiar image from the High Renaissance. It was inscribed on the 1 Euro coin in Italy, representing the coin to the service of man, instead of man to the service of money. However, the original is rarely displayed to the public: it is physically very delicate, and highly susceptible to light damage. It is housed in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, under lock and key.

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Alice Loxton