The article you read today is about the world-famous drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, representing a man in a square and circle. Most of you have seen it on coffee mugs, tees, expensive tote bags, stationary, scientific logos or other places. Presently, many superficially ignoble minds are messing with the beauty of the actual drawing by making it through AI. Now, despite being this trendy or popular, almost 90% of people are unaware of the story behind it. One fun fact, or should I call it the heights of neglected intellect, is that when I show the illustration to people, they don’t even know its name. So for all of them, who at the end of the article, will have sparkling eyes of knowledge, let us start. Known as the Vitruvian Man, it is not just a drawing but a celebration of grandeur or art, the scientific relationship between humans and nature, the ideal of the Renaissance, the power of mathematics and geometry, the creative potential of a human mind and much no beyond our thinking. If this drawing is highly relevant to every human species, then it becomes of utmost importance to learn about it. Before we start analysing it, let me tell you one thing. For quick and lazy readers, I am briefing or summing up crucial events related to the painting in the next section. For avid readers and Da Vinci fans, I have curated this in-depth article to let you understand everything you must know about it. So head to the next section.
General Information About the Drawing.
1. Artist’s Statement.
“I have from an early age abjured the use of meat, and the time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men.”
2. Subject Matter.
The painting forecasts a man in a circle and square, deploying all sorts of ideas to celebrate the grandeur of art, the power of mathematics and geometry, the beauty of the human body, the connection between man and universe and more. The drawing derives from the ancient architect, Vitruvius, who described his figure in an architectural context, insisting that all the proportions of sacred temples conform with the proportions of the ideal human body, which is the hidden geometry of the universe. I will let you understand every term, which you do not understand now in the later section. Right now, I am just briefly preparing your mind for an in-depth study of Leonardo’s Vitruvian man.
Leonardo da Vinci, one of the exceptional inventors from Milan, drew the Vitruvius Man. Besides being a painter, he was the world’s finest botanist, a significant engineer who had abilities to design bridges, waterways, cannons, armoured vehicles and an architect. Yes, he painted the two famous paintings in history, The Last Supper and Mona Lisa, but in his own mind, he was a man bound with science and engineering. Having a great and passionate study of anatomy, fossils, and geology, his ability to combine art and science made him paint Vitruvian Man, which let him get another title, history’s most creative genius.
A fixed period or duration is not assigned to the painting. It should be noted, however, that Leonardo made this work probably in his late thirties or during the 1490s.
During this period, Leonardo was part of Ludovico’s Court of Milan collaboration circle of architects and engineers, which included Giacomo Andrea. Four weeks after Leonardo and Francesco returned from their trip to Pavia, a dinner happened on July 24, 1490, which told about the manuscript of Vitruvius. And during this time, Andrea decided to try to illustrate Vitruvius’s idea, and over this dinner, he discussed this idea with Leonardo and Francesco. And it was the first spark or idea when Leonardo knew about the drawing of the Vitruvian man. A later section will explain the versions of Vitruvius man and how Leonardo created history’s most genius drawing.
The artwork remains in the Gallerie dell’ Accademia in Venice. It is an execution of art carefully implemented through quantitative design parameters, which is famous among the artists and architects community.
7. Technique and Medium.
The technique and medium employed in this sketch are Metalpoint, pen and ink with touches of watercolour on white paper. If one looks at the painting, one would understand that Leonardo meticulously first rested a circle on the base of the square using a compass and a set square. The lines are not sketchy instead da Vinci dug hard with his stylus to carve the lines on the pages perfectly, as if he was making an etching.
The constant and frequent disastrous experiments with new techniques led to only 15 of his paintings surviving until this day. Undoubtedly, his compositions remained mystical and way ahead of time.
|Artist||Leonardo da Vinci|
|Medium||Pen and ink on paper|
|Dimensions||34.4 cm × 24.5 cm|
|Worth||Not on sale|
|Where is it housed?||Gallerie dell’ Accademia in Venice|
The Vitruvian Man | Fast Knowledge
Let me now take you on a journey through the life of Leonardo’s Vitruvian man.
In-depth Description of The Vitruvian Man Drawing.
About the Artist: Leonardo da Vinci.
Previously, when I wrote articles on Da Vinci’s paintings, I tried conveying his sections of life through them. You can obviously read about his early days from Virgin of the Rocks and The Last Supper. For the Vitruvian man, I have a delightful story format of Leonardo’s life. You know that our legendary artist lacked proper schooling. One can guess that even at a young age, he might have driven himself with enthusiasm and passion, driven by traditional limits. Giorgio Vasari, one of his early biographers, says,
“He set himself to learn many things, only to abandon them almost immediately.”
As far back as his childhood, Leonardo’s artistic abilities had already begun to ripen. As he observed with his wide-eyed astonishment, he seamlessly painted the objects around him. Vasari recalled,
“Ser Piero took some of Leonardo’s drawing along to the well-known Florentine artist Andrea del Verrochio, who was a good friend of his, and asked if he thought it would be profitable for the boy to study drawing. Andrea was amazed to see what extraordinary beginnings Leonardo had made and urged Piero to make him study the subject. So Piero arranged for Leonardo to enter Andrea’s workshop.”
So, one should remember that the earliest teacher of Leonardo was Andrea del Verrocchio. When he turned fourteen, he left his hometown, Vinci, behind and set out for Florence. Ugolino Verino, one of the renowned poets, said about Florence,
“Every travelled arriving in the city swear that there is no place more beautiful in all the world.”
However, with all the work, the progress, Leonardo, when riding the town, saw sights and sounds of construction and noted,
“The streets were full of mules and donkeys carrying away the rubbish and bringing gravel, which made it difficult for people to pass. All the dust and the crowds of onlookers were most inconvenient for us shopkeepers.”
However, the city had good aspects of artistry in terms of wood carvers, silk workers, goldsmiths and painters.
When Leonardo went to Verrocchio, he would run all kinds of errands. One must note that the artist was blessed with an alluring physique and extraordinary good looks, which let Verrochio set him for a bronze statue of David, which he produced in 1466, the same year when Leonardo arrived in Florence. He learned how to grind colours and use glues and varnishes, whatever the old-century artworks included. The how-to manual Verrochio let Leonardo to study was from The Craftsman’s Handbook or Il libro dell’arte, written in the late 1300s by Florentine artist Cennino Cennini. Next, Leonardo learnt and studied the artistic technique, which included a gradual introduction, over the years, then subjects like how to organize a composition, how to sketch its outlines, how to flesh out subjects, render them using perspective and foreshortening, how to play with light and shade and apply colour, and more. Now, the book, Craftsman’s Handbook almost covered these subjects by Verrochio expected Leonardo to learn many of the basics by copying from a model book: a folio of drawings showcasing the kinds of generic figures and scenes that an artist might be asked to produce on demand for a client.
And during this time, he encountered a standard set of ideal human proportions. And this, in later years, would fascinate Leonardo’s learning so much that he would draw the famous Vitruvian Man.
Having gained an overview of the life incidences of the artist, let us move on to the following sections to get a better understanding of the composture of The Vitruvian Man.
History and Background of the Drawing.
The story dates back to 1487 when Milan authorities sought the ideas for building a Tiburio or lantern tower, and Leonardo wanted to grab this opportunity. In the same year, his idea and plan for an ideal city engineered a little to the negligible interest of the authorities. Hence, the competition of Tiburio showcased the fascination of Leonardo towards the chance to be an architect. Before we move forward, let me tell you that the Milan cathedral on which the Tiburio was to be made was a century old, but it does not have a traditional Tiburio. And the foremost challenge here was that the structure must conform to the Gothic style and at the same time bear with the structural weakness of its crossing area. And so this project’s complexities somehow let Leonardo meet Donato Bramante and Francesco di Giorgio, two marvellous architects. Somewhere this project led Donato and Leonardo to be closest friends as both of their personalities had sizzling brilliance and effortless charm. Within a few years, both of them would work together on a commission by Ludovico Sforza, which includes Bramante adding a new dining hall in the Santa Maria delle Grazie and Leonardo painting a wall depiction of the Last Supper.
Coming back to the project, Bramante presented his written opinion on the Triburio design ideas in September 1487, and Leonardo received six payments for his work on the project. When all of this was going along, and the project was still in work, Francesco Di Giorgio, was called in as the Milan authorities were still baffled about what to do about the structure.
Now, in between these events, while they all were working on the Milan Cathedral Triburio project, Leonardo and Francesco took a little trip to the town of Pavia, twenty-five miles away from the project site. The visit was due to another project for the cathedral of Francesco. Bramante had advised them about the cathedral to be non-Gothic, more like Leonardo’s taste. With the same length as the nave and the transept, it featured an elementary facade and a symmetrical interior design. And as this happened, Francesco, at the time, revised the manuscript of his treatise on architecture. And he discussed it with Leonardo as they travelled together. All these eventually coincided with a spectacular event when Leonardo acquired the venerable book from the library of the castle in Pavia, which is an architectural treatise by Vitruvius. As they read the book, they noted the centuries-older description of the relationship between the Church and the Universe. It was nothing but the preliminary details of the Vitruvian Man. Francesco first produced at least three such drawings to accompany one of the passages from the treatise of Vitruvius. Then came the drawings of Giacomo Andrea, another dear friend of Leonardo who was part of the collaborative circle of architects and engineers, gathered by Ludovico at Milan court. And then came the illustrations of Vitruvian Man by Leonardo. We still have a few sections to go before I tell you how all of the versions differ from each other.
Let’s move on to the next section in order to find out who Vitruvius was and what the symbolism behind the drawing Vitruvian Man was.
Who Was Vitruvius?
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, born around 80 BC, was a Roman military man under Caesar, who specialised in the design and construction of artillery machines. After serving a few years in the army, Vitruvius later became an architect, working on a temple which no longer exists. But he wrote a very crucial book on architecture from classical antiquity: De Architectura or The Ten Books on Architecture.
One question might arise about how Vitruvian ended up compiling this famous book. So to understand, let me give you a little background. Gaius Octavius Thurinus had become consul in the early 20s BC, and he and other Romans watched with some apprehension and some pride. He had avenged his uncle Julius Cesar’s murder in the previous decade and defeated his archrival, Mark Antony, in Egypt, bringing an end to years of deadly civil war. Soon after returning home, he assumed a grand new name, Cesar Augustus, and devoted himself to restoring the city. And Vitruvius thus no doubt observed with delight that he would remake the city of Rome, transform the nature of Roman power and government, and redefine the very idea of empire.
One question which may arise after a quite brief intro to knowing Vitruvius is why his work appealed to our two legends Leonardo and Francesco. So, the answer is that it was because of its concrete expression to adjoining the analogy of architecture, which went back decades earlier from Plato and the ancients, defining the relationship between the microcosm of man and the macrocosm of the earth.
Leonardo embracing this analogy in both his art and science, wrote,
“The ancients called a man a lesser world, and certainly the use of this name is well bestowed because his body is an analogue for the world.”
Vitruvius applied this analogy to the design of temples in a way that it should reflect the proportions of a human body as if the flat laid body forms the floor plan of the structure or architecture. He writes,
“There must be a precise relation between its components, as in the case of those of a well-shaped man.”
For the term, well-shaped man, Vitruvius described,
“The length of the foot is one-sixth of the height of the body; of the forearm, one-fourth; and the breadth of the breast is also one-fourth. The other members, too, have their own symmetrical proportions, and it was by employing them that the famous painters and sculptors of antiquity to great and endless renown.”
Now, you might have understood the basics of a Vitruvian man. When Vitruvius described human proportions, Leonardo’s anatomy studies which were just begun in 1489 got an inspiration. Adding on, after Vitruvius explained the human proportions, a way to put a man in the circle and square in order to determine the ideal proportion of a church;
“In a temple, there ought to be harmony in the symmetrical relations of the different parts to the whole. In the human body, the central point is the navel. If a man is placed flat on his back, with his hands and feet extended, and a compass centred at his navel, his fingers and toes will touch the circumference of a circle thereby described. And just as the human body yields a circular outline, so too a square may be found in 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 a perfect square.”
Now, let me take you to the next section, which can tell you the importance of the drawing through its meaning and symbolism.
Understanding The Vitruvian Man Meaning and Symbolism.
The most crucial part of this article is the symbolism behind the sketch of the Vitruvian Man. Firstly, we will start from the basic principles, which almost all the articles, on the internet have neglected. The foremost thing about this sketch is the circle and square. Now, many of you might think it might be just geometry, but it is not.
From the beginning of the ancient world, philosophers, mathematicians and mystics held the view that the presence of a circle is synonymous with extra special powers. Represented by unity and wholeness, it is a godly shape or a symbol of the cosmic. If I have to describe it in the best words, I would openly use a few lines from an influential Roman poet, Cicero, who says,
“I can see nothing more beautiful, than that figure which contains all others, and which has nothing rough in it, nothing offensive, nothing cut into angles, nothing broken, nothing swelling, and nothing hollow.”
“Only circles and spheres have the property of absolute uniformity in all their parts, of having every extremity equidistant from the centre. There can be nothing more tightly bound together.”
Now, as you understand the basics of the shapes, let me tell you how it works over the different theories, which would explain the meaning of the Vitruvian man in a broader aspect. As Aristotle explained the cosmos is a concentric set of spheres, each revolving around the central axis, the circle here denotes a symbolic meaning of the existence of the cosmos. Vitruvius explained,
“The cosmos is the all-encompassing system of everything in nature, and also the firmament, which is formed of the constellations and the courses of the stars. This revolves ceaselessly around the earth and sea.”
However, Vitruvius was sure that behind the power of nature, there is a lead architect of the entire world, universe, and cosmos, God. The human architect should do for his creations what nature, or God, had done for the cosmos- this is why some of the first surviving illustrations of the geocentric cosmos are not found in ancient astronomy or philosophy, as one might think, but in practical treatises, written by Roman land surveyors, who Vitruvius worked closely with as an architect.
Now, coming to another predominant shape here, the square is the best complement to the idea of a circle. According to Vitruvius, an architect’s role is to grasp the circular animating principles of the universe, and then bring them down to earth, and the only way to do this is to use a square.
For you to comprehend what I have been trying to explain to you clearly, you must know that Rome was said to have been ploughed in a circle when it was founded, and Romulus divided the circular city into quarters so that it could be arranged into what future Romans would call Roma quadrata or squared Romans. In other words, we understand that through circle and square, there is a connection between the cosmos and Earth, through architecture. There was a sense of comfort in living in a Roman city, knowing that your life was aligned with the divine plan.
By now, you might have understood the symbolism and meaning behind the geometry of the Vitruvian Man. But what about the body inside it?
The Romans believed the human body is a scaled-down version of the universe or world. The heavens consist of the aether, which has no material substance, but at the same time, the material world has four crucial elements: earth, water, air and fire. Due to the balance of all these elements and the perfect form of the cosmos, there is the presence of an all-persuasive divine spirit, or mind, of which the human being is a miniature. And hence there is a link between heaven and man, which is the human body. Now, at a literal level, one can understand that there is a very basic composition behind this regardless of all the complexities, which is the temple must be designed according to the set of natural laws embodied in the human form as it is the only linkage to the universality and the living state on earth.
Hence, this concluded every single question behind the meaning of the Vitruvian man. Well, I still think there is a lot to learn about it, which can be understood by Toby Lester’s book, The Da Vinci Ghost.
Vitruvian Man: The Different Versions.
There is not much to this section, as I am only referring to the significant things you must understand. Francesco produced at least three such drawings, which can be attributed to accompany the treatise and translation of Vitruvius. The first one shows a sweet and dreamy image of a man in a circle and a sware, which lacks the depiction of proportions as they are rendered casually. Whereas, the two other drawings by him portray the man more carefully proportioned in the circles and squares, forming the shape of a church floor plan.
In the other version by Andrea, we see that he produced a sophisticated version of a spread-armed man in a circle and a square. However, these geometric shapes are not centred as the circle, rises higher than the square. Having the navel in the centre of the circle and the genitals in the centre of the square, the man’s arms are stretched outward and feet closer.
Lastly, we have Leonardo’s version, for which we are here. He described the aspects of the positioning of the sketch:
“If you open your legs enough that your head is lowered by one-fourteenth of your height and raise your hands enough that your extended fingers touch the line of the top of your head, now that the centre of the extended limbs will be the navel and the space between the legs will be an equilateral triangle.”
Vitruvius Excerpt from the Drawing.
Before we go to the actual conclusions of the sketch, let us examine the writing translation from the artist’s painting.
Vitruvius writes in his book,
“The length of the outspread arms is equal to the height of a man. The hairline to the bottom of the chin is one-tenth of the height of a man.
From below the chin to the top of the head is one-eighth of the height of a man.
From above the chest to the top of the head is one-sixth of the height of a man.
From above the chest to the hairline is one-seventh of the height of a man.
The maximum width of the shoulders is a quarter of the height of a man.
From the breasts to the top of the head is a quarter of the height of a man.
From the elbow to the tip of the hand is a quarter of the height of a man.
From the elbow to the armpit is one-eighth of the height of a man.
The length of the hand is one-tenth of the height of a man.
The root of the penis is at half the height of a man.
The foot is one-seventh of the height of a man.”
Looking at the Subject Matter and Dominant Elements.
Now that you understand the basis of the drawing, the formal analysis is not really a strenuous task.
The sketch comprises a male body, which is superimposed and has different postures. From other sketches, we know that the earlier versions from other artists have one body depiction. In contrast, Vinci drew two postures, one with feet together and arms outstretched with the side of the square, the other with a cross body and spread-eagle arms. The first posture of the man touches the sides of the square, whereas the other one taps the circumference of the circle. Now that we talk about the shapes, he did the face figures and male body meticulously too. There is autonomous correctness of the man from all the body parts and well-defined muscles. His hair and face give a furious look.
Like the four-winged dragonflies Leonardo studied, the man appears vibrant and energetic. The only static element is the calm torso, with subtle crosshatch shading behind it. Though there is a sense of motion, there is a natural and comfortable feel to the man.
The author and historian Toby Lester describes the image as being a self-portrait by da Vinci, described in his book, Da Vinci’s Ghost (2012) saying,
“idealized self-portrait in which Leonardo, stripped down to his essence, takes his own measure.”
Vitruvian man represents a time when art and science combined to form mortal minds to answer timeless questions about who we are and how we fit into the grand scheme of things.
Opinions and Conclusions
The drawing, Vitruvian Man, showcases dancing in the imagination. It refers to the analogy of man, the macrocosm of earth, human proportions, connectivity between two worlds and transformation of geometric shapes. Leonardo, with his curiousness, powerful imagination, scientific studies, experimentation and contact with the intellect mind of Ludovico’s court, formed the greatest study and painting of history.
By the way, do you believe that it is a self-portrait of Vinci that he made by lies on his back? Did you ever try tracing yourself and binding with shapes? If you did, let me know in the comments below.
1. Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.
2. Da Vinci’s Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image by Toby Lester.
Frequently Asked Questions.
According to Vitruvius, the supreme architect is God, who designed the universe, represented by the circle. Further, he explained human architecture should be synonymous with the cosmos depicted by the usage of a square, and the only link between the circle and square is human, hence the representation of the Vitruvian Man.
The painting depicts a nude man standing within a circle and a square. It shows two different postures, four hands and four legs.
The Vitruvian man is housed and owned by Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, Italy. In 1822, Giuseppe Bossi, an Italian painter studied the artwork to write a scholarship on it and sold it to the museum; since which, it has never been displaced and is occasionally available on public display.
Upon the analysis of The Vitruvian Man, it was found that the ratio of the radius of the circle to the side length of the square was supposed to be 137 / 225 = 0.6088… and not the golden ratio (1 / r) = (51/2 − 1) / 2 = 0.6180…
According to the author and historian Toby Lester, the Vitruvian Man is the self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci.
The Vitruvian Man is owned by Gallerie dell’Accademia since 1822 and is never going to an auction, making the art priceless.