From the May/June, 2012 issue of Touchstone

Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man by Mary Elizabeth Podles

Mary Elizabeth Podles on Christian Art

Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man

Today’s column revisits an old friend, known to us from a thousand coffee cups and mouse pads, Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Like a Coca-Cola sign, so familiar is he that we no longer actually read him but jump ahead to the next association: mental stimulation (coffee cup), brilliant thoughts at our fingertips (mouse pad), and so on. Poor Man! Surely that was not the fate Leonardo had in mind when he so carefully inscribed you in his notes. For Leonardo, the illustrated Man was the distillation of his studies of human anatomy as an artist, a scientist, and a philosopher, in an age when the three were not so separate as they might be today.

By fitting the human figure in both a circle and a square, Leonardo set out to demonstrate that the ideal human proportions correspond to the two ideal geometric figures. The correlation between geometry and the human form was by no means new. In antiquity, the geometry of human proportion was the basis of architectural proportion, and the ideal building was a reflection of the geometry of the ideal man, or rather, was man writ large. That is why we still feel comfortable in architecture based on Classical principles: each part of the whole relates to our own proportions, no matter how grand the scale.

Artists of the Italian Renaissance set out to revive the principles of antique proportion and apply them to their own modern art. They devoured books like Marcus Vitruvius Pollio’s De Architectura (About Architecture) from the first century b.c. and made them their own. The father of Renaissance architecture, Leon Battista Alberti, based his own treatise on architecture on Vitruvius’s, and Leonardo probably came to know Vitruvius via his friend Giacomo Andrea da Ferrara.

Two Forms for Two States

In fact, Vitruvian Man is an illustration of a passage in Book III of Vitruvius’s De Architectura, in which he describes the measurements of the perfectly proportioned man. The text above and below Leonardo’s drawing is a transcription and translation of these measures, which are marked on the drawing: “a palm is the width of four fingers; a foot is the width of four palms (i.e., 12 inches); a cubit is the width of six palms,” and so forth. These proportions, Leonardo tells us in his curious backward script, “are reflected in his [Vitruvius’s] buildings.”

Giacomo Andrea, too, had made an attempt to illustrate the same passage, but he could only make it work by willfully distorting the figure. It took a Leonardo to realize that the human figure conforms to the two perfect geometries only in two different states.

If he draws the man at rest, with his feet together and his arms extended straight from his shoulders, then he fits perfectly into the square and his proportions correspond to Vitruvius’s measurements. But to fit the same man into the circle, he must either change the proportions, or raise the man’s arms and spread his feet apart, as if he were in motion. If he thus shows the man in action, then, too, his navel will now be at the center of the circle, as Vitruvius required. So: man at rest, the square; man in motion, the circle.

Interestingly, the passage in which Vitruvius spells out the perfect human proportions comes from his chapter on sacred architecture. To Vitruvius, the circle and the square, being ideal forms, are ideally suited to temple buildings. This is, I conjecture, because they represent the two simultaneous states of the Prime Mover, perfect Being and perfect Action. The square, with its solid base and equilateral sides, stands firm and will not be moved. It represents stasis. The circle, on the other hand, is created by the perpetual motion of a single point around a still center; that is, it stands by analogy for endless action.

The ultimate exemplar of Vitruvian architecture is the interior of the Pantheon in Rome: a projection of the square into three dimensions, a cube, interlocked with a three-dimensional circle, a sphere. Even to the untutored eye, the space is an expression of the sublime, and one way or another has been continuously used as a sacred space since it was built.

Divine Symmetries

So Leonardo’s Man is more than just a well-proportioned dude. If God is a mathematician, and man conforms to the symmetries of God’s ideal forms, is man not a reflection of that divine perfection? An image, in small, of the harmonies and symmetries of the universe? A microcosm of the greater cosmos?

Such considerations probably lay behind Leonardo’s lifelong study of human anatomy in all its variations. We know that Leonardo planned to publish a treatise on anatomy and collaborated with a Milanese doctor in 1510–1511 toward that end, but the project was never finished. This drawing dates from the 1480s, a decade for which Leonardo is most noted for not finishing three major painting commissions. If Leonardo had a flaw, it was his inability to bring a project to completion. We might speculate that Vitruvian Man was meant for publication in some other, equally unfinished treatise, possibly on architecture or proportion; it has rather the look of an illustrated page in its format and layout, the relation between text and image.

Whatever he intended for it, Leonardo’s drawing is surely an epitome of the Italian Renaissance. With one foot firmly planted in a knowledge of the Classical past and the other resting on a keen observation of nature, Vitruvian Man expresses the Renaissance notion that man himself is the most harmonious expression of God’s creation, and that to understand him in small is to understand the harmony of the universe at large. Long may he grace our coffee cups and mouse pads! •

Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Naples, Florida.

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