The "Vitruvian Man" is an image that everbody — at least anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of history and art — knows, and yet whose name seems to be unknown by everybody. Circa 1492, while the Spanish were funding what would become the systematic rape, pillage, and looting of the New World — and the return of virulent syphilis; I think the native peoples didn't give as good as they got, but it was a nice thank-you present to the Europeans — Leonardo da Vinci was exploring the relationship between architecture and the human body's proportions.
The outgrowth of that exploration was "Vitruvian Man"; the name originates with the Roman architect Vitruvius, who was one of the first to argue in De Architectura (original latin and English translation), written between 27 and 23 BC, that human proportions should be the basis for architecture. (Vitruvius also argued that the job of the architect was to design useful and aesthetically pleasing buildings, a lesson that Frank Gehry would do well to learn.) But, back to Vitruvian Man.
Da Vinci was certain to have read Vitruvius' treatise on role of the human body's proportions in temple architecture:
1. The design of Temples depends on symmetry, the rules of which Architects should be most careful to observe. Symmetry arises from proportion, which the Greeks call a)nalogi/a. Proportion is a due adjustment of the size of the different parts to each other and to the whole; on this proper adjustment symmetry depends. Hence no building can be said to be well designed which wants symmetry and proportion. In truth they are as necessary to the beauty of a building as to that of a well formed human figure,
2. which nature has so fashioned, that in the face, from the chin to the top of the forehead, or to the roots of the hair, is a tenth part of the height of the whole body. From the chin to the crown of the head is an eighth part of the whole height, and from the nape of the neck to the crown of the head the same. From the upper part of the breast to the roots of the hair a sixth; to the crown of the head a fourth. A third part of the height of the face is equal to that from the chin to under side of the nostrils, and thence to the middle of the eyebrows the same; from the last to the roots of the hair, where the forehead ends, the remaining third part. The length of the foot is a sixth part of the height of the body. The fore-arm a fourth part. The width of the breast a fourth part. Similarly have other members their due proportions, by attention to which the ancient Painters and Sculptors obtained so much reputation.
3. Just so the parts of Temples should correspond with each other, and with the whole. The navel is naturally placed in the centre of the human body, and, 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.Link to the editor's note at the bottom of this page
4. If Nature, therefore, has made the human body so that the different members of it are measures of the whole, so the ancients have, with great propriety, determined that in all perfect works, each part should be some aliquot part of the whole; and since they direct, that this be observed in all works, it must be most strictly attended to in temples of the gods, wherein the faults as well as the beauties remain to the end of time."De Architectura by Vitruvius, Book III, Chapter 1 (original latin and English translation)
Notice the key portion:
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.
Now, this starts to possibly explain why da Vinci drew the figure the way he did. While it might be that he was simply following Vitruvius' instructions, there may be another explanation rooted in mathematics. Da Vinci may actually have been attempting to solve the famous mathematical problem of "squaring the circle".
The secret concerns a geometric algorithm in human form. In this unity, Leonardo saw the solution to the problem known as squaring the circle.Leonardo‘s man is an algorithm! Squaring the circle is an ancient geometrical problem whereby of a pair of compasses and a ruler are used in an attempt to construct a circle and square of equal area.
In the 19th century it was proven beyond doubt that this is not possible in a finite number of constructional steps. Solutions do exist in infinite numbers of steps, however. The algorithm in the Vitruvian Man is based on an approach in-volving a continuation into infinity.
For the first time, the reconstruction of the algorithm provides an insight into the unique and bold image of man which Leonardo da Vinci has bequeathed to us in the form of this mystery. The Vitruvian Man may not be the sole mystery of this type. You can now witness the unfolding of the mystery with the aid of computer animations."The Secret of the Vitruvian Man" by Klaus Schroeer
This seems cumbersome and forced, however. It may simply be that da Vincia was following Vitruvius' lead in delighting in the joy of the human body's proportions. Vitruvian Man might, therefore, be just an exploration of human geometry. There are, of course, other explanations, involving everything from sacred mathematics to alchemical imagery. Consider this one — the massive geometry lesson not being quoted — blending geometry with alchemy:
The most fundamental composition consists of a circle, a square, and a triangle, a sigillum known to magicians and alchemist, sometimes called the Universal Seal of Light or the Seal of Hermes. The compositional triangle on this drawing is concealed, even though that it outlines important segments. It is drawn in the circle within the square and it coincides with the progression of squares as depicted on the illustration.
The main proportional lines come from the progression of squares, every second square is half the size of the original, and the measures thus obtained are the same as described by Vitruvius.
Distinguished is also the triangle with the size of a square and apex in the navel.
It seems that the drawing, or better the original design as explained by Vitruvius, contains many layers of geometry and symbolism that concord in one single image delineating the proportions of the human body. This idea of 'reason' governing 'form' was the fundamental theme of the Renaissance and is traceable in best architecture and art in general. It would not be odd if Leonardo had a close contact with scholars that spread the source of the Renaissance thought which didn't distinguish between art, science, and magick in terms of conflicting or opposing discourses as is the case today."Vitruvian Man: On Planning of Temples" by Morphvs
Regardless of its purpose, we can always appreciate the drawing as pure art. You can see the original at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Venice, Italy, in the unlikely event you ever end up there.
And, lest I forget to mention it, yesterday (15 April) was da Vinci's birthday. (Tax day, too.) Google, of course, observed it with a special logo (replicated here for after it vanishes):
Sources and Further Reading
- De Architectura by Vitruvius (original latin)
- De Architectura by Vitruvius (English translation)
- "Vitruvian Man: On Planning of Temples" by Morphvs
- "The Secret of the Vitruvian Man" by Klaus Schroeer