Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of Vitruvian Man is one of the most well known graphic images in the world. Many people don’t even know the title I have used for the image and of those that do, many have no idea why it’s so called. Even less people are aware that the image is not unique or original to Leonardo, although his rendition is probably the most beautiful and most powerful, but is in fact an iconic concept in the work of Renaissance artist-engineers.
The origin of the Vitruvian Man is to be found in Vitruvius, De architectura (Ten Books of Architecture). Vitruvius lived in ancient Rome in the first century BCE and his Ten Books of Architecture is the only known full treatise on architecture that we have from classical antiquity. Almost nothing is known about Vitruvius himself and even the full name that tradition has accredited him with, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, is questionable the name Vitruvius being the only part that is certain. Although the book is nominally about architecture more than half of the text is about things we would not normally associate with a textbook on architecture such as astronomy, geography and natural philosophy to quote Tomas Noble Howe, himself quoting Frank Brown, “…the mission of Vitruvius is to present architecture as a liberal art, based on a Hellenistic belief of the unity of knowledge.”
It is against this background that we find the passages referencing the dimensions of the human body, the origins of the iconic diagram, in Book 3: Temples Chapter 1: First Principles of Symmetry.
- The composition of a temple is based on symmetry, whose principles architects should take the greatest care to master Symmetry derives from proportion, which is called analogia in Greek. Proportion is the mutual calibration of each element of the work and of the whole, from which the proportional system is achieved. No temple can have any compositional system without symmetry and proportion, unless, as it were, it has an exact system of correspondence to the likeness of a well-formed human being.
- For Nature composed the human body in such a way that the face, from the chin to the top of the forehead and the lowest roots of the hairline should be one-tenth [of the total height of the body]; the palm of the hand from the wrist to the tip of the middle finger should measure likewise; the head from the chin to the crown, one-eighth; from the top of the chest to the hairline including the base of the neck, one-sixth; from the centre of the chest to the crown of the had, one-fourth. Of the height of the face itself, one-third goes from the base of the chin to the lowermost part of the nostrils, another third from the base of the nostrils to the point between the eyebrows, from that point to the hairline, the forehead also measures one-third. The foot should be one-sixth the height, the cubit, one-fourth, the chest also one-fourth. The other limbs, as well, have their own commensurate proportions, which the famous ancient painters and sculptors employed to attain great and unending praise.
I have quoted theses passages in full to make it very clear that for Vitruvius the form of the human body is quite literally the mass of all things. Symmetry and proportion is everything and the human body is the model for this claim. In his next paragraph Vitruvius delivers up the construction plan for Vitruvian Man.
- Similarly, indeed, the elements of holy temples should have dimensions for each individual part that agree with the magnitude of the work. So, too, for example, the centre and midpoint of the human body is the navel. For if a person is imagined lying back with outstretched arms and feet within a circle whose centre is at the navel, the fingers and toes will trace the circumference of this circle as they move about. But to whatever extent a circular scheme may be present in the body, a square design may also be discerned there. For if we measure from the soles of the feet to the crown of the head, and this measurement is compared with that of the outstretched hands, one discovers that this breadth equals the height, just as in areas which have been squared off by use of the set square.
The illustrations are Thomas Noble Howe’s modern reconstructions but we have good reason to believe that manuscripts of Vitruvius’ work in antiquity would have had illustration.
Given his unified approach to art, science, design, engineering and metaphysics it comes as no surprise that Vitruvius served as a major role model for the Renaissance artist-engineers and that his Ten Books of Architecture served them as a bible. We already find the Florentine artist Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378–1455), an acknowledged forerunner to the artist-engineers, quoting Vitruvius in his potted history of linear perspective; the humanist scholar Poggio Bracciolini having ‘rediscovered’ Vitruvius in 1406.
Vitruvian man emerged in the works of the so-called Sienese engineers. The first of these was Mariano di Jacopo (1382–1543) known as Taccola. Taccola an engineer produced two annotated manuscripts of drawings of machines De ingeneis (Concerning engines)
and De machinis (Concerning machines).
In his notes we find his rendition of Vitruvian Man, not an artistic one like Leonardo’s but the simple diagrammatic version of an engineer.
Taccola was the major influence on a second Sienese engineer Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1493–1501), whose studies of machines are almost all based on those of Taccola.
However unlike Taccola he was also a painter, a sculptor and a leading architect. His rendition of the Vitruvian Man is very simplistic
He, however, went one stage further incorporating inscribed human bodies into the architectural drawings of his ‘temples’, the churches he designed.
Both Taccola and Francesco di Giorgio influenced Leonardo who processed manuscripts of the work of both men; his manuscript of di Giorgio being particularly heavily annotated.
Although Luca Pacioli (1445–1517) doesn’t include a version of the Vitruvian Man in his De divina proportioni (Venice, 1509), famously illustrated by Leonardo, the second part of the book Trattato dell’architettura (Treatise on Architecture) is a twenty chapter discussion of the theories of Vitruvius comparing the proportions of the human body to those of artificial structures.
Having considered the right arrangement of the human body, the ancients proportionedall their work, particularly the temples, in accordance with it. In the human body the discovered the two main figures without which it is impossible to achieve anything, namely the perfect circle and the square.
Naturally the early printed editions of De architectura contain illustrations of the Vitruvian Man. The first printed and illustrated edition of De architecture edited by Italian architect and scholar, Fra. Giovanni Giocondo, in 1511 contained images for both square and circle:
The first Italian edition by Cesare Cesariano in 1521 also contains two images
Another edition from 1525 edited by Francesco Giorgi contains only one image of the circle.
The artist who spread the Italian concepts of linear perspective north of the Alps, Albrecht Dürer, was also obsessed with the idea of the perfect mathematical proportions of the human body and devoted a large part of his life to writing his magnum opus Vier Bücher von Menschlicher Proportion (Four Books on Human Proportion), published posthumously in 1528. Followed in 1532 by a Latin edition. Of interest is the fact that as he had almost completed his book he realised that the mathematics it contained was too difficult for the apprentice painters for whom he was writing so he wrote an introductory geometry book, Underweysung der Messung mit dem Zirkel und Richtscheyt (Instruction in Measurement with Compass and Straightedge). Dürer’s book does not contain a Vitruvian Man but contains many diagrams demonstrating the mathematical proportions of the human body.
In the middle of the sixteenth century another Renaissance polymath, physician, astronomer, astrologer, mathematician and philosopher, Girolamo Cardano, wrote in his De subtilitate rerum (1552) that Vitruvius was one of the twelve persons who he supposes to have excelled all men in the force of genius and invention; and would not have scrupled to have given him the first place, if it could be imagined that he had delivered nothing but his own discoveries.
Since the ‘rediscovery’ of Leonardo in the eighteenth century his version of Vitruvian Man has been used, modified and parodied in a thousand different images, diagrams, adverts, poster and whatever. By a strange coincidence as I was preparing this post Monica Azzolini, Renaissance historian and Leonardo expert, posted two modern parodies of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man on Facebook, which caught my fancy and I offer them for your amusement.
And of course a Ninja Turtle Leonardo Vitruvian Man
 All references to Vitruvius, Ten Books of Architecture are taken from the English translation edited by Ingrid D. Rowland (translator) and Thomas Noble Howe (illustrator), CUP, pb 2001
 On the subject of illustrations in scientific works in antiquity see: Alfred Stückelberger, Bild und Work: Das illustrierte Fachbuch in der antiken Naturwissenschaft, Medizin und Technik