Second only to his Mona Lisa, the most famous drawing in the world of art is perhaps Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452–1519) Vitruvian Man. Leonardo was the illegitimate son of a notary and a peasant girl. He was named after his birthplace Vinci (at Anchiano) near Florence. He became a painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect, anatomist, biologist, and engineer whose achievements and inventive genius remain unsurpassed. His idea for The Vitruvian Man began when he studied a depiction of man by the Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius (c. 90 BC–c. 20 BC) (Fig 1).
One common thread in the countless accounts of Leonardo was his imaginative, voracious curiosity—always asking why? and how? He wrote in mirror writing and was probably left-handed. He preferred visual observation to the written word. He flitted from one subject to the next, often without finishing when a finite fascination was satisfied. Four thousand or more sheets of his notes and drawings survive, a small fraction of his output.1
Although human and animal anatomy was but one of his interests,2 he was the first artist to study anatomy by dissection. This interest was ignited during his apprenticeship in Andrea del Verrocchio’s workshop by Verrocchio and by his neighbor Pollaiuolo. He dissected animals and humans in Florence (1467–1482 and 1500–1508), Milan (1482–1499 and 1508–1513), and France (1500–1519).a In Pavia, he collaborated with the professor of anatomy, Marcantonio Della Torre, making numerous drawings with red chalk annotated by pen. His well-known manuscripts are filled with mathematical, optical, mechanical, geological, botanical, and anatomical studies. Two hundred folios are preserved at Windsor Castle, the property of the Queen. Between 1485 and 1515 he dissected about thirty corpses.
Leonardo’s anatomical illustrations were intended to form part of his De Figura Humana, begun in 1489, but it was never finished. Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man was originally known as Le proporzioni del corpo umano secondo Vitruvio, which appeared in Book III of his treatise De architectura. Vitruvius commented that the ancients had modeled the proportions of their temples on those of the human body, which could be enclosed in both a perfect circle and a square.
Leonardo’s search for mathematical and artistic understanding was different; he sought a relationship between mind and body, man and the natural world.3 For his was a “divine” vision of man designed as the supreme example of the proportional harmonies of the human body:4,5
“Man has been called by the ancients a lesser world, and indeed the name is well applied; because, as man is composed of earth, water, air, and fire . . . this body of the earth is similar.”
He compared the human skeleton to rocks (“supports of the earth”) and the expansion of the lungs in breathing to the ebb and flow of the oceans. In order to demonstrate these divine natural phenomena in man, Leonardo examined minutely the accurate detail of form, posture, movement, and expression.
He completed his drawing in ink on paper in about 1490. It shows a man in two superimposed positions with arms and legs apart enclosed in a circle and square.6 (Fig 2) What distinguished his drawing from Vitruvius was that he placed the navel as the center for the circle but the pubis the center for the square. Indeed his circle and square do not fit exactly, one into the other. And, Leonardo did not copy Vitruvius’s proportions of the limbs but used those he found himself after measuring many models.
Previously, the Greek scholar Polykleitos (5th century BC) had described the ideal mathematical proportions for the parts of the human body. Leonardo’s friend Giacomo Andrea, an expert on Vitruvius, whose drawing showed a circle centered on the navel, influenced Da Vinci; but only one pose was shown. Leonardo’s association with Luca Pacioli mistakenly led some authorities7 to believe that he had applied Pacioli’s golden ratio (0.618)b to Vitruvian Man. Pacioli’s Divina proportione (in which Leonardo drew some sixty figures) stated that in the human body the ancients found the two main figures—the perfect circle and the square—without which it is impossible to achieve anything. The art historian Sir Kenneth Clark wrote: “it is impossible to exaggerate what this simple looking proposition meant to the men of the Renaissance . . . it was the foundation of a whole philosophy.”8 Clark said Leonardo’s art was “a symbolic language of something [spiritual] within him that already existed.”9
His accuracy has been confirmed in a recent large database of scanned anthropometric measurements that simulated a Vitruvian man; almost all contemporary proportionsc in men were close to the original.10
|Vitruvius’s human body enclosed in a circle and a square. British Library. Source||Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. In GALLERIE DELL’ACCADEMIA DI VENEZIA (no 6s, 228). Galleria Accademia|
Leonardo’s description is written in his characteristic mirror writing. There is text above and below the image. In the upper part he quotes Vitruvius’s measurements:
If we take the height of the face itself, the distance from the bottom of the chin to the under side of the nostrils is one third of it; the nose from the under side of the nostrils to a line between the eyebrows is the same; from there to the lowest roots of the hair is also a third, comprising the forehead. The length of the foot is one sixth of the height of the body; of the forearm, one fourth; and the breadth of the breast is also one fourth . . .
Leonardo in drawing the circle and square observed their centers were different11 in contrast to Vitruvius’s drawing centered on the navel. Another difference is that the arms are raised whereas Vitruvius’s are at a lower angle. Leonardo’s combination of two arm and leg positions creates different poses within the square and circle. He managed to incorporate more than a static principle of proportion by conveying the concept of motion. The tiny visible compass marks show that the body is based on measured intervals, not polygons, or the other geometrical figures12 that were often imposed on the image. Below the drawing, Leonardo describes:
The length of the outspread arms is equal to the height of a man; from the hairline to the bottom of the chin is one-tenth of the height of a man; from below the chin to the top of the head is one-eighth of the height of a man; from above the chest to the top of the head is one-sixth of the height of a man; from above the chest to the hairline is one-seventh of the height of a man. The maximum width of the shoulders is a quarter of the height of a man; from the breasts to the top of the head is a quarter of the height of a man; the distance from the elbow to the tip of the hand [a cubit] is a quarter of the height of a man; the distance from the elbow to the armpit is one-eighth of the height of a man; the length of the hand is one-tenth of the height of a man; the root of the penis is at half the height of a man; the foot is one-seventh of the height of a man; from below the foot to below the knee is a quarter of the height of a man; from below the knee to the root of the penis is a quarter of the height of a man; the distances from below the chin to the nose and the eyebrows and the hairline are equal to the ears and to one-third of the face.
Leonardo’s drawing shows his original understanding of a geometrical presentation of posture, exact size, and proportion in his unceasing attempt to relate man to both natural and architectural worlds. Vitruvian Man manifests his efforts to relate the ideal man (“homo bene figuratus”) to nature—a “cosmografia del minor mondo”—within the geometrical confines of a circle and a square.12 In brief, it is a microcosm of man derived from the macrocosm of his universe.
His last three years were in the small residence of Cloux (Clos-Lucé), near the summer palace at Amboise of King Francis I. Here he painted little but arranged and edited his scientific studies, his treatises on anatomy and painting.
Leonardo’s digitized notebooks called “Turning the Pages 2.0” became available in 2007 as a joint project of the British Library and Microsoft.13 His Vitruvian Man is in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice. It has inspired many derivative works including those of Albrecht Dürer and the mystic William Blake.
Leonardo recognized no division between art and science. His visionary perspectives propelled the world into knowledge undreamed of: into explorations, inventions, and exquisite original art. His works fit into no set category, nor do they conform to any style or period of history. They are unique.
- Varying patronage determined his several moves and overlapping locations and dates.
- Before Plato the figure was present in gold on the temple of Minerva in Athens, which gave the names Golden Number or Golden Section. Two quantities are in the golden ratio (phi) if their ratio is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities. a/b = a+b/a = 1.618
- We would expect some differences owing to increasing height and body dimensions over centuries.
- Richter I A. Ed Thereza Wells and Martin Kemp. Leonardo da Vinci Notebooks. Oxford World Classics 2008
- Keele KD. Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Anatomia naturale’. Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, New Haven 1979;52:363-409.
- Simona Cremante. Leonardo da Vinci. The complete works. Newton Abbot, Devon. David & Charles 2006.
- Kemp M. Leonardo da Vinci (2006); revised edition (Oxford University Press, 2011.
- Clark K, and Kemp M. “Leonardo da Vinci: Revised Edition.” London, Penguin Books, 1989.
- Toledo-Pereyra LH. Leonardo da Vinci: The Hidden Father of Modern Anatomy, Journal of Investigative Surgery 2002;15:5: 247-249,
- Pastorello T. The Vitruvian Man: Leonardo Da Vinci Squares the Circle. About.com Art History Guide. https://www.thoughtco.com/symmetry-and-proportion-in-design-177569
- Clark K. The Nude: A Study of ideal Art. John Murray; 1960.
- Maiorino G. Leonardo da Vinci The Daedalian Mythmaker. Pennsylvania University Press. 1992.
- Thomas DM, Galbreath D, Boucher M, Watts K. Revisiting Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man Using Contemporary Measurements. JAMA 2020;(323):2342-3.
- The Da Vinci Notebooks. Ed Emma Dickens. London. Profile Books 2005. https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=DDHFe-T00ksC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&ots=RYEuxWOVt5&sig=vDU2ifmtGN3ROgXtNeJlUl4bSd0&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Mascia LL.. (2016) A Vitruvius Inspired Criterion for the Construction of Polygons, Nexus Network Journal, 18(2), pp.533-545,
- British Library Arundel MS 263. “Turning the pages.” [a group of notebooks dating between 1478 and 1518.] http://www.bl.uk/turning-the-pages/?id=cb4c06b9-02f4-49af-80ce-540836464a46&type=book
JMS PEARCE, MD, FRCP, is a retired neurologist and author with a particular interest in the history of science and medicine.