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Leonardo da Vini - The Vitruvian Man

by Frauke Maria Petry

Ever heard of the monkey index? This is the ratio of the distance between the outstretched arms (measured at the end points of the middle fingers) to the height of the body. Climbing sports in particular make use of this corellation figure, while there is a popular rumor that the body span is identical to the height of a human being - an assumption already made by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). The starting point is his world-famous drawing "The Vitruvian Man":

On a 24.5 x 43.3 cm sheet of paper, a monochrome drawing is framed by text at the top and bottom edges. The writing is arranged mirror-inverted from right to left. In the upper right corner is a number, and in the lower right corner is Leonardo da Vinic's signature. Everything was captured with ink and shows traces of decay on the surface because of the delicate material.

The drawing is based on a human body, which is centrally arranged in a rectangle and a circle. The geometric shapes share the lower line on which they seem to rest. The verticals of the square intersect the circle and thus lie inside it. The upper corners slightly overlap the line of the circle in the upper quarter.

Within them are the outstretched hands of the human being, placed sideways and centrally on the vertical central axis of the geometric shapes. At the end of his head rests the upper horizontal of the square. The muscular man with shoulder-length hair looks frontally at the viewers with a rigid expression. His arms repeat downward at an angle of about 30 degrees. The shoulders are crossed by auxiliary lines. The same is true of the chest, hips and knees, which are each marked by a horizontal central axis. The lower arms are marked at the joints by means of verticals.

The legs are also found in duplicate: the outer pair follows the line of the circle and rests on it. Both legs are extended at an angle of about 45 degrees from the central axis. While the right foot is pointed forward in each pair, the left foot is angled outward in each pair. This results in a hip position and leg rotation to the left. Below the drawing is a line corresponding to the width of the rectangle. At both ends are markings and labels. They accompany the man with double pairs of extremities like a kind of ruler with specially determined units of measurement.

Leonardo da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man" has been in the Galleria dell'Accademia in Venice since 1822 and gained international fame at the latest in 1939 at the Milan exhibition in honor of the Italian. Painted in 1490, it ranks before the artist's two other well-known works: The Last Supper (1495-1498) and the Mona Lisa (1503). Today, the motif of the Vitruvian Man can be found on numerous mass-produced products, is preferably used by health insurance companies as well as medical practices, and adorns the reverse of the Italian 1-euro coin.

As the name "Le proporzioni del corpo umano secondo Vitruvi" reveals, the ink drawing with notes is a study of the "proportions of the human body according to Vitruvius". Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (80/70-10 B.C.) was a Roman architect who devoted himself in his 10 books "De Architectura" not only to the ideal proportions of architecture, but also to the human body (Book III, Chapter 1). Thereby he was not the first with the idea to bring the human proportions into a mathematical system of ratios. The visual arts have always referred to a so-called canon, which was already established by the ancient Egyptians with a grid of 18 fields. Also in the classical Greece one was convinced that the beauty of the body measures lay above all in the relationship of the body parts to each other. As the classical ideals of Greek and Roman culture flourished again in the Renaissance, especially under the philosophical and intellectual movement of humanism, some artists used Vitruvius's writings as experimental models to achieve a perfect union between mathematics and art.

However, apart from his contemporaries and colleagues Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1439-1502) and Giacomo Andrea de Ferrara (n.d.), only Leonardo da Vinci succeeded in creating a depiction that harmoniously and anatomically comprehensibly placed the entire human being in a square and circle. In doing so, the artist did not follow all of Vitruvius' notes, for example, he shifted the center: while the circle of the "homo ad circulum" starts exactly at the navel, the center of the "homo ad quadratum" is at the height of the man's groin. It can be assumed that Leonardo also incorporated the results of his measurements of the anatomy of young men (1489/90) into the study. It is remarkable that on the basis of da Vinci's proposed solution, an elegant algorithm for the approximate circle-square can be derived. In addition, the ratio of the square to the radius of the circle corresponds to the golden section with a minimum deviation of 1.7%. Therefore one speaks also of the "man in the golden section". To make this manifestation of genius absurd, scientific experiments on men showed that about 10% of the proportions of the test subjects corresponded to the measurements of da Vinci's Vitruvian man.

In the individual marginal note and in his typical written form, the artist records the proportions, noting, "The length of a man's splayed arms is equal to his height." He assumes four fingers for a palm, four palms would equal a foot, six would equal a cubit, and four cubits in turn would fit into an arm span. Although sources now doubt that da Vinci could actually have read Vitruvius' third book (Francesco di Giorgio Martini did not translate it into Italian until 1490, but Leonardo met the architect on a trip), the proportions are almost congruent. The Vitruvian Man is a symbol of symmetry, beauty and body consciousness. Through the absolute forms of square and circle, Leonardo quotes the signs of the Middle Ages for earth and sky. With pen, ink and metalpoint, the connection between microcosm and macrocosm, man and universe was captured here in the manner of Rinascimento.

In keeping with the idealized, mathematical study of proportions, the execution of the ink drawing is unusually cleanly drawn and embellished compared to other study sheets by the artist. The body image is given a depth and three-dimensionality by shading and cross-hatching in the background. Historian Toby Lester suggests that the Vitruvian Man's face is an idealized self-portrait of Leonardo (Da Vinci's Ghost, 2012). This self-confidence testifies to the conviction of his own genius. But then, the Italian should also have suspected that there cannot be a uniform concept of man at all and an ideal conception can never correspond to a generally valid truth.

Leonardo da Vinci - the Vitruvian Man

ca. 1490, Drawing (ink on paper), 24.5 x 34.3 cm, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice, Italy


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