Aims to Solve a Universal Riddle: Leonardo set himself to solve the old geometric problem of the proportions of man. This drawing, accompanied by notes, became the so-called Proportions of Man or Canon of Proportions, as it explores the complex concepts of geometry in drawing. This is considered to have resolved the philosophical problem inherent to the parallel between nature of man and the mechanics of the universe.
Microcosm and Macrocosm, Renaissance’s Idea of a Man as a Symbolic Microcosm: The Vitruvian Man seeks to represent the relationship between the ideal man (“homo bene figuratus”) and nature (“cosmografia del minor mondo”). This connection is made by the means of a circle and a square, which confine the figure geometrically, exploring the relationship between man, nature and the divine, correlating the symmetry of the human body with universal dimensions, as man becomes the microcosm version of the macrocosm of his universe. This is the most iconic example of the Renaissance ideal that man is the centre of the universe, and depicts man as the measure of all things.
Art as Science: Leonardo didn’t recognize any division between art and science; the drawing is an example of the way he interconnects the two.
The Circle and the Square Symbolism: The geometrical shapes of the square and the circle have been used for their symbolic qualities since ancient times, long before they reached this purpose of proportion; in classical symbology, the circle connects to the divine and the cosmic, since it’s perfect shape (all points equidistant from the centre) was seen as a property assimilated to divine perfection; the square, in opposition, was a symbol for the earth, where each side was usually associated to one of the four directions, seasons and elements. In this way, by fitting man into a square and a circle, Vitruvius and Leonardo claim that man is both mortal and belongs to the earth, but also has a divine level attached to his existence. In this perspective, it exemplifies a principle that sustains that man is connected to the earthly and the divine.
The Ongoing Quest for Universal Proportions: This study culminates the fascination of da Vinci in proportions, and especially in human proportions. In multiple of his notebooks throughout his life, various studies can be seen of different proportions of the human body. A couple of years after completing the drawing, in 1492, Leonardo was still fascinated with the ratios and proportions of the human body and how they connected to the macro universe. He wrote, in one of his notebooks: “ By the ancients man has been called the world in miniature; and certainly this name is well bestowed, because, inasmuch as man is composed of earth, water, air and fire, his body resembles that of the earth.”.
Man as a Measure: This iconic study provides a proportion solution for designs. The anthropomorphic proportions defined in the Vitruvian Man can be transposed to all creations, from painting and architecture to city planning and landscape architecture.
The Two Centres: Da Vinci announces the point that ‘If you open the legs so as to reduce the stature by one-fourteenth and open and raise your arms so that your middle fingers touch the line through the top of the head, know that the centre of the extremities of the outspread limbs will be the umbilicus, and the space between the legs will make and equilateral triangle’ (Accademia, Venice). Through the central line which runs across the pit of the throat through the umbilicus and pubis between the legs, we can establish the two different centres of the human body, the “centre of magnitude” and the “centre of gravity”, as Leonardo kept distinguishing multiple times.
Some other important geometrical/compositional notes, also related to proportions, is the fact that the centre of the circle coincides with the navel of the figure, whereas the groin is the centre of the square; both shapes have their own centre, slightly shifted from each other; the arms and legs are outstretched radially reaching the edges of the circle and they are parallel/perpendicularly to the edges of the square. Note that the drawing is not centred in the sheet of paper, something normal since it was in fact a study of anatomical proportions and not a final work in the form of a painting.
Drawing method: Leonardo da Vinci is well known for his notebooks filled with studies and his loose drawings. Known as a master draughtsman, the artist was served, mostly, by pen-ink to draw his sketches on paper. Leonardo relied very often on these studies to better illustrate what words are too vague to explain, as it is seen in most of a humongous number of drawings. The master of systematic studies, used different thicknesses and types of lines (lighter, heavier, dotted, etc.) to differentiate prominent and visible features from hidden or geometrical parts of the drawn subject. Da Vinci privileged the study and drawing for its immediacy of capturing accurately what was being observed. This scientific approach to visuality proves the finality of the study, in this case, the study of human anatomy.
There are various innovations in terms of the geometrical approach and measurements, namely placing the navel at the centre of the circle and the pubis at the centre of the square, as this is unlike what Vitruvius had defined (who had spoken of a circle and square that fit exactly, one into the other. As for the specific measurements, Leonardo didn’t use the ones given by Vitruvius but measured from many models, creating his own ratios.
- Sir Kenneth Clark claimed that Leonardo’s art was “a symbolic language of something [spiritual] within him that already existed.”
- Since Leonardo, many artists tried and failed to design an improved version of the Vitruvian Man. For example, Cesare Cesariano version adds a grid to a drawing of exaggerated proportions – with larger hands and feet and a smaller head -, which enhances the fact that the human body cannot be mathematically confined to an even grid.
- Francesco di Giorgio Martini had attempted to draw a Vitruvian Man a decade earlier.
- Some evidence suggests that Giacomo Andrea de Farrara collaborated with da Vinci in the creation of the Vitruvian Man, as some scholars point out.
- Due to its fragile quality, the drawing is not displayed to the public very often, and it is continuously monitored and always protected from direct light. However, the Vitruvian Man was displayed in an eight week exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, in December 2019, in the Louvre Museum, even though the move was highly contested for its fragile nature.