LEONARDO’S VITRUVIAN MAN
Over 500 years ago, Leonardo Da Vinci scribbled on his notes: ‘Man is the model of the world.’ Leonardo is referring to his graphic representation of the human anatomy, which he produced in the 1480s at the height of the Renaissance. Based on the work of the classic architect Vitruvius, the drawing of the Vitruvian Man is an artistic correlation of human proportions with the science of geometry. Studying humans as a symbol of the most perfect proportions, Leonardo was trying to solve a centuries-old problem which baffled scholars. The challenge is the relative proportions of buildings in relation to the human scale. Leonardo’s dissection of the human body gave an insight of its perfect and harmonious scale. It captured the soul of the old belief that man is God’s most cardinal creations, and the analogy that the human body is the ultimate expression of the universe. It is symmetrical, simple and harmonious. Hence, very few places in the world can showcase examples of the blend of the classic ideals of architecture, engineering, art, writing, painting and music which erupted because of the scientific exchange between the east and west like Venice.
And Leonardo Da Vinci is one of those exceptional minds to emerge, because of the unique blend that happened during the early days of the Italian Renaissance. He had an unquenchable curiosity for knowledge, which could explain why he was constantly on the move. Combined he was everything: a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, inventor, anatomist, botanist and writer. The scope and depth of his artistic talent is immortalised in one of the greatest paintings of all time; The Mona Lisa. His notebook shows the complex thought process of a genius. His artistic expression embodying a vast range of work covering every imaginable science in the world, with so much passion that his approach is sometimes viewed as unusual for his time. Leonardo Da Vinci admired the work of the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius. He devoured his theories on the ideals of human proportions when a copy of Vitruvius’s building encyclopaedia - "De Architectura" - surfaced back in Europe via Venice, and was translated to Latin.
Vitruvius covered much of what we know today about Roman architecture from the technology used, to the methods employed, and building materials sourced. He was famous for saying: “Good buildings have three ideals: form, function and beauty.” And goes on to explain: “For any building to be beautiful, it must have perfect symmetry and proportion, like those found in nature.” And concludes by saying: “And since nature’s most perfect object is man, a perfect building should be proportioned like the human body.” Leonardo’s idolisation of this theory resulted in the Vitruvian Man - a sketch in pen and ink on paper. The detailed figure brings to life a man standing with his arms and legs fully stretched out, while the tip of his fingers and toes touching the circumference of a circle, centred on the man’s navel. Simultaneously, the man is inscribed inside a square.
This iconic illustration is accompanied by text, describing the man’s measurements in relation to his proportions. For example: A palm is four fingers, a foot is four palms, a cubit is six palms, and four cubits make a man etc. Hence, Leonardo was obsessively quoting Vitruvius’s De Architectura in which these dimensions were outlined in full detail. While all of Leonardo’s ratios came from the classic text, he proved his own genius by realising the square and the circle cannot be superimposed. He shifted the square down in his drawing and proved the underlying fact about man’s body, and its perfect harmony between geometry and mathematics. He is convinced that by taking this basic principle and applying it to architecture, it will produce buildings which are not only perfect, but beautiful and elegant too. The Vitruvian Man become a cultural icon, and his ideals contributed greatly to the progress of later generations, especially when put to practise by one of Leonardo’s contemporaries, the architect Andrea Palladio.
Human anatomy from Leonardo Da Vinci's sketchbook ...