Down through the centuries, artists and scientists have studied the human body and its proportions. This image of the human proportion is universally recognised. It brings together da Vinci’s work in art and the sciences and his interest in the human proportion.
Towards the end of the 1480s, Leonardo da Vinci drew in one of his notebooks what we now know as the Vitruvian Man. The pen and ink drawing on paper show a man fitting inside a circle and square.
The man appears in two superimposed positions with both his arms and legs apart. Above and below the drawing are his notes.
By placing the man within a circle and square, Leonardo da Vinci uses the picture to show the different ratios of the human body. Using the picture, he brings together art and mathematics by teaching us the importance of the proportions of the human body.
Because of this, the picture has two other names. The first being the Cannon of Proportions and the other being the Proportions of Man.
The drawing of the human body inside the circle and square shows us not just the keen interest that da Vinci had in anatomy.
It also allows us to view his study of actual human proportions. What we know of his career is that Leonardo da Vinci carried out a number of dissections of the human body. It was this research that enabled him to produce detailed drawings on not just the inner workings of the body but also its outward form.
The Vitruvian Man gives us da Vinci’s idea of the perfect ideal man.
Today the Accademia Gallery in Venice is home to the da Vinci’s drawing. As it is over 600 years old and on paper, it is rarely on display to the public.
Vitruvius and the Vitruvian Man
The ideas that da Vinci used in his drawing of the proportions of the human body are not original. He used the writings of the Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius who lived in the 1st century BC. It is his use of Vitruvius’s writings that gives us the title of the drawing. It is also the basis for the title of the drawing.
Vitruvius is best known for his work on architecture called De Architectura. De Architectura is not one book but ten different books.
Each one of these deals with a variety of topics such as architecture, city planning and machines. As well as influence Renaissance artists, his work still shapes architecture to this day.
It is in Vitruvius’ Book 3 that examines the building of temples that we see the idea of the Vitruvian man emerge. In his work Vitruvius argues that there is a relationship between buildings and human beings.
Through his use of geometric shapes, he tells us that the relationship between man and buildings was a matter of proportion. Vitruvius work defines a system that offers us a way of understanding human proportions.
It also gives us a set of precise measurements and geometrical relationships. He puts forward the view that the link between buildings and people is a matter of proportion. It is Vitruvius’ ideas on the connection between man and buildings that inspired the work of Leonardo da Vinci and other Renaissance architects.
The drawing of the Vitruvian man is not just an image of the human body with arms and legs extended. It also includes da Vinci’s handwritten notes that appear above and below the human form. The notes outline specific proportions of the human body as described by Vitruvius in his work.
The writing located above the drawing contains measurements which are unique to the human body. Written by Leonardo da Vinci, it details the notes that Vitruvius has as well as providing geometric ratios formed by the outstretched arms and legs.
The text located below the drawing lists certain proportions of the human body. For example, it contains such facts as the span of a person’s outstretched arms is equal to their height. Each of the points used to work out the proportions listed are marked on the drawing.
There is a line going from the point to the text that includes the length or dimension mentioned below the anatomical figures.
Art and Mathematics
The drawing of the Vitruvian man shows us how art and mathematics can come together in a way that was often seen in Renaissance art. When you look at the drawing, you can see the deep understanding that Leonardo da Vinci had of proportion.
If you examine da Vinci’s drawing of the human body, it shows us how each separate part of the body was nothing more than a mere fraction of the whole body. For example, this shows us that the fact the length from the elbow to the armpit is the same as being one-eighth of the height of a man. Similarly, the outstretched arms are always as wide as the body was tall.
Leonardo da Vinci’s interests in mathematics and the science of the body were sometimes in conflict with art. While he attempted to show us the ideal man in his drawing, it was necessary for him to make minor alterations to the body.
It appears that by doing it meant that the figure would fit within the frame provided by the circle and square. As a consequence so that he could apply the ideals set by the architect Vitruvius he was only able to show perfection by going against scientific observation.
Appearance in Modern Culture
As one of the best-known images of Renaissance art, the Vitruvian Man has over the years inspired a number of similar works. Despite its age, the drawing is still seen as the ideal representation of the human form. There have been appearances of the drawing in both TV and film. Examples include:
- In the 1994 film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein Victor Frankenstein uses the drawing of the perfect man as a model for his creation of new life
- In the 1997 movie Contact, it is the drawing which forms the basis of the logo that is the International Space Agency involved in making contact with extra-terrestrial life
- Between 1963 and 1998 the drawing was the centrepiece in the title sequence of the ITV TV documentary series World in Action
An adaption of the drawing also forms part of the logo of the 2016 HBO original series, Westworld.
The use of the drawing is not limited to just the TV and film industry. The image of the perfect man also turns up on the reverse side of the Italian 1 euro coin. It also appears in Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code.
As well as this, the drawing has been adapted and used in the logo of a variety of different organisations. It has become the image of what we associate with human health and well-being and the ideal of physical fitness.
What does it all mean?
Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of the human male puts forward the idea that is man and nature are connected. He shows how it is possible to place the human body in an overlapping circle and square. By doing this, he was able to demonstrate a way of showing that the human body is correctly proportioned.
For him, he saw a man standing at the centre of the universe with everything else measured from this point.
In his drawing da Vinci has used proportions as a way of connecting man and nature. By doing so, he shows us the coming together of art and mathematics.