The Meaning of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man
The iconic image of man’s perfect proportions explained
Christopher P Jones is the author of How to Read Paintings, an introduction to some of the most fascinating artworks in art history.
It is one of the most famous images to come out of the Italian Renaissance: a man is stood with his arms outstretched, positioned inside a square, overlaid with a circle.
I think the power of this image lies in the fact that it can be understood on an intuitive level first — as a declaration of the mathematical perfection of the human body — before its underlying meaning might be explored further.
But where does this image come from?
The Architecture of the Human Body
The deeper meaning of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous drawing, made around 1492, begins nearly 1600 years earlier in Ancient Rome.
Ancient thinkers had long assigned the circle and the square with symbolic meaning. Because of their symmetry, circles were seen as representations of the cosmic and the divine, and also an emblem of natural balance. The square on the other hand represented the earthly and the secular.
The title given to the image, Vitruvian Man, refers to the Roman architect named Vitruvius who lived from around 80–70 BC until about 15 BC. Vitruvius drew on the traditions of geometric symbolism to develop a theory of cosmic order and its application to building projects.
Whilst the life of Vitruvius is little known, one surviving artefact is his book De architectura, libri decem, known today as The Ten Books on Architecture.
As a treatise on building techniques, it was a hugely influential work, not least because it gave later generations of architects insight into the means and methods of Ancient Roman architecture.
Not only did the author describe the virtues of a well-considered building, he also explored civic projects like town planning and the engineering of water supplies and aqueducts.
Vitruvius’ The Ten Books on Architecture survived over the centuries because it was repeatedly copied and distributed throughout Europe. Crucially, in 1414 it was “rediscovered” by a Florentine scholar named Poggio Bracciolini in a Swiss library. From there, new copies and translations were made, most decisively by the Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti, who republished it in his seminal treatise on architecture, De re aedificatoria (c.1450).
But why was The Ten Books on Architecture so important to Leonardo’s drawing of Vitruvian Man?
Vitruvius’ book expressed the search for a perfect harmony of parts in the form and shape of buildings. The architectural orders invented by the Greeks — Doric, Ionic and Corinthian (see image above) — evolved to become finely proportioned elements with strict rules over their ratios of height and width.
For Vitruvius, the ideal basis for this prescriptive scheme was the human body. In Book III of The Ten Books, Vitruvius wrote about the perfect proportions of man and how they accorded with the geometry, most especially the fundamental forms of the circle and the square.
It was here that Vitruvius outlined his influential claim:
“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 da Vinci was not the first artist to attempt to “solve” Vitruvius’ proposition. It is thought that Leonardo may have been influenced by an earlier drawing made by the architect Giacomo Andrea Da Ferrara — who was also a friend of Leonardo’s.
Like Leonardo’s version, Andrea’s circle is centred on the navel of the man. Notice too how Andrea has de-centred the circle so that the square and circle line up only at their lowest edges. It seems likely that these approaches influenced Leonardo in his more polished version.
Two blocks of text accompany Leonardo’s drawing. In these, Leonardo notes the measurements of the ideal body according to Vitruvius:
- four fingers equal one palm
- four palms equal one foot
- six palms make one cubit
- four cubits equal a man’s height
- four cubits equal one pace
- twenty four palms equal one man
Additionally, the first set of notes also specifies: “If you open your legs so much as to decrease your height 1/14 and spread and raise your arms till your middle fingers touch the level of the top of your head you must know that the centre of the outspread limbs will be in the navel and the space between the legs will be an equilateral triangle. The length of a man’s outspread arms is equal to his height.”
Through these notes, Leonardo appears to be working through Vitruvius’ principles to reach a practical representation of the ideal — not an easy feat.
The success of Leonardo’s drawing is how effortless he makes it all appear. In this, the drawing directly communicates a metaphysical proposition that underpinned much of Renaissance thinking: that humankind was the centre of its own universe, and that the achievements of mathematics, classical arts, rational thought and science should begin to rival the dominance of the Christian worldview.
Christopher P Jones is the author of Great Paintings Explained, an examination of fifteen of art’s most enthralling images.
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