Vitruvian Man, c1490, Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing Vitruvian Man depicts a male figure in two superimposed positions with his arms and legs apart, in a circle and square. The drawing and text are sometimes called the Canon of Proportions or Proportions of Man. It is based on the correlations of ideal human proportions with geometry described by ancient Roman architect Vitruvius in his treatise De Architectura. Vitruvius described the human figure as being the principal source of proportion among the Classical orders of architecture. He determined that the ideal body should be eight heads high. “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.”

Leonardo is clearly illustrating Vitruvius’ De Architectura which reads:

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.

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. 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 is often used as a symbol of the essential symmetry of the human body, and of the universe as a whole.

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