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vitruvian man (1490), leonardo da vinci

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci

Title: Vitruvian Man

Technique: ink on paper

Dimensions: 34.6 x 25.5 cm

Year: 1490

Location of creation:

Current Location: Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy

Movements: High Renaissance

Theme: Scientific study

Subject: Anatomical study

drawing summary

The Vitruvian Man explores the proportions of man, and it’s the most famous and iconic drawing in art history. Leonardo pursues a scientific and systematic method in the most resolved study of human proportions, becoming the canon of human anatomy, unable to be improved by any other artist.

general description

The drawing depicts a nude man with arms and legs drawn in two superimposed positions, enclosed in a circle and square; it illustrates the principles of Vitruvius, who described the proportions of the human body in De architectura.

Widely considered one of the most significant works of art ever created, the drawing is greatly connected to the beginning of the High Renaissance; it is perceived as one of the most iconic images in the history of Western art, and it demonstrates Leonardo’s deep understanding of science and proportion; considered to be an outstanding example of the merging between scientific thoughts and artistic goals.

The drawing is based on Vitruvius’ descriptions which appeared in Book III of his treatise De architectura. Written in , Vitruvius comments that the classical civilizations had modeled the proportions of the temples according to the proportions of the human body. Fascinated with this idea, the study, originally known as Le proporzioni del corpo umano secondo Vitruvio,  is a result of Leonardo’s artistic, architectural, technical and scientific personal research.

Context: it was developed and completed when Leonardo was an apprentice in Andrea del Verrocchio’s workshop, during which time he was also immersed in architectural design.

The description written above and below the image is written in his characteristic reversed mirror technique. The upper text, references 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 underside 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 . . .

Whereas the lower text, references other measurements:

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.

content analysis

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.

  1. Sir Kenneth Clark claimed that Leonardo’s art was “a symbolic language of something [spiritual] within him that already existed.”
  2. 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.
  3. Francesco di Giorgio Martini had attempted to draw a Vitruvian Man a decade earlier.
  4. Some evidence suggests that Giacomo Andrea de Farrara collaborated with da Vinci in the creation of the Vitruvian Man, as some scholars point out.
  5. 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.

direct influences and connections

Artists:

  • Giacomo Andrea  (expert on Vitruvius),

Paintings: 

Movements: 

Other:

  • Alberti’s and Vitruvius’ treatises

The human figure as a measuring device has served as a basis to multiple theories in both art and architecture. An architect and artist that was greatly influenced by this idea was Le Corbusier, who was driven into creating the Modulor, creating his own system of  relating human scale to design, specially architectural space.

related works

related works

Artist: Albrecht Dürer
Title: The thinking man
Date: 1471-1528
Medium: Print
Size: unknown
Location: Who took it from V. Brun (1964), page 132

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Title: Study on the proportions of head and eyes
Date: Second half of 15th century
Medium: Pen and ink on paper
Size: 19.7 x 16 cm
Location: Royal Library of Turin, Italy

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Title: Male head in profile with proportions
Date: c. 1490
Medium: Pen and ink on paper
Size: 28 x 22.2 cm
Location: Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Title: Studies of the Foetus in the Womb
Date: 1510-1513
Medium: Black chalk, sanguine, pen, ink wash on paper
Size: 34 x 22 cm
Location: Windsor Castle, Royal Library, England

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvius Pollio, Cesariano Cesare
Title: A pariquadrata superficie humai corporis perdistincta eo naturali centro umbilici circulum excipere – et in eo quadratum minorem inscribere
Date: 1521
Medium: Print from engraving
Size: unknown
Location: Not on display