Vitruvian Man

The Vitruvian Man is a world-renowned drawing created by Leonardo da Vinci around the year 1487. It is accompanied by notes based on the work of the famed architect, Vitruvius. The drawing, which is in pen and ink on paper, depicts a male figure in two superimposed positions with his arms and legs apart and simultaneously inscribed in a circle and square. The drawing and text are sometimes called the Canon of Proportions or, less often, Proportions of Man. It is stored in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, Italy, and, like most works on paper, is displayed only occasionally.

da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man

The drawing is based on the correlations of ideal human proportions with geometry described by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius in Book III of his treatise De Architectura. Vitruvius described the human figure as being the principal source of proportion among the Classical orders of architecture. Leonardo’s drawing is traditionally named in honour of the architect.

Encyclopaedia Britannica online states, “Leonardo envisaged the great picture chart of the human body he had produced through his anatomical drawings and Vitruvian Man as a cosmografia del minor mondo – cosmography of the microcosm. He believed the workings of the human body to be an analogy for the workings of the universe.”

The multiple viewpoint that set in with Romanticism has convinced us that there is no such thing as a universal set of proportions for the human body. The field of anthropometry was created in order to describe individual variations. Vitruvius’ statements may be interpreted as statements about average proportions. Vitruvius takes pains to give a precise mathematical definition of what he means by saying that the navel is the center of the body, but other definitions lead to different results; for example, the center of mass of the human body depends on the position of the limbs, and in a standing posture is typically about 10 cm lower than the navel, near the top of the hip bones.

Leonardo’s drawing combines a careful reading of the ancient text with his own observation of actual human bodies. In drawing the circle and square he correctly observes that the square cannot have the same center as the circle, the navel, but is somewhat lower in the anatomy. This adjustment is the innovative part of Leonardo’s drawing and what distinguishes it from earlier illustrations. He also departs from Vitruvius by drawing the arms raised to a position in which the fingertips are level with the top of the head, rather than Vitruvius’s much lower angle, in which the arms form lines passing through the navel.

The drawing itself is often used as an implied symbol of the essential symmetry of the human body, and by extension, of the universe as a whole.

It may be noticed by examining the drawing that the combination of arm and leg positions actually creates sixteen different poses. The pose with the arms straight out and the feet together is seen to be inscribed in the superimposed square. On the other hand, the ‘spread-eagle’ pose is seen to be inscribed in the superimposed circle.

Leonardo most probably tried to illustrate Vitruvius’ De architectura 3.1.2-3 which reads:

‘For the human body is so designed by nature that the face, from the chin to the top of the forehead and the lowest roots of the hair, is a tenth part of the whole height; the open hand from the wrist to the tip of the middle finger is just the same; the head from the chin to the crown is an eighth, and with the neck and shoulder from the top of the breast to the lowest roots of the hair is a sixth; from the middle of the breast to the summit of the crown is a fourth. 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. The other members, too, have their own symmetrical proportions, and it was by employing them that the famous painters and sculptors of antiquity attained to great and endless renown. Similarly, in the members of a temple there ought to be the greatest harmony in the symmetrical relations of the different parts to the general magnitude of the whole. Then again, in the human body the central point is naturally the navel. For if a man be placed flat on his back, with his hands and feet extended, and a pair of compasses centred at his navel, the fingers and toes of his two hands and feet will touch the circumference of a circle described therefrom. And just as the human body yields a circular outline, so too a square figure may be found from it. For if we measure the distance from the soles of the feet to the top of the head, and then apply that measure to the outstretched arms, the breadth will be found to be the same as the height, as in the case of plane surfaces which are perfectly square.’

– Vitruvius. 1914. The Ten Books On Architecture (Translated by Morris Hicky Morgan) London, Great Britain: Humphrey Milford Oxford University Press (1914) p. 72-73

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