Leonardo Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man Explained

Updated on March 18, 2019
Leonardo Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man
Leonardo Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man | Source

Why Does Leonardo Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man Have to Be Explained?

It's just a pretty drawing after all.

Isn't it?

Yes, it is a beautiful drawing. The Vitruvian Man is also the work of one of the brightest men that have ever lived. But there’s more to it:

It is an answer to an old geometric problem that had mathematicians pulling their hair out since Pythagoras time and a philosophical solution to the nature of man.

Yep, all of that!

Why Vitruvian?

Leonardo's "Vitruvian Man" is called that way because Leonardo was working over the writings of a Roman architect named Marcos Vitruvius.

Who Was Marcus Vitruvius?

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio lived in Rome around the first century BC. He was an architect, engineer and author of the treaty De Architectura which was THE book on architecture during the Renaissance. All the masters, including Michelangelo and Leonardo read it and tried to apply its concepts.

The next major work on architecture was published until 1495 by Leon Battista Alberti (who was another Marcus Vitruvius fan).

This video shows a concise explanation of the Vitruvian Man.

A human figure inside both a circle and a square is a metaphysical statement: the circle represents the infinite, the divine and the square represents the material mundane world.

Why Was Vitruvius' Work Such a Big Deal?

Marcus Vitruvius wrote his book De Architectura around year 15 b.c. He was probably just gathering the knowledge of the era in one book; he is not believed to have “created” all those ideas.

In 1486, the book was reprinted in Rome for the first time. It was the work of Fray Giovanni Sulpicio de Veroli and it was an instant hit. All the masters begin its study.

We must remember that during the Renaissance, architects, artists and thinkers were at awe with the works of antiquity that they had just begun to rediscover and Vitruvius book was the only surviving treaty of classical architecture.

The Problem

In the third book of De Architectura Vitruvius wrote the following:

"The navel is in the centre of the human body, and, if in a man lying with his face upward, and his hands and feet extended, from his navel as the centre, a circle be described, it will touch his fingers and toes. It is not alone by a circle, that the human body is thus circumscribed, as may be seen by placing it within a square.

For measuring from the feet to the crown of the head, and then across the arms fully extended, we find the latter measure equal to the former; so that lines at right angles to each other, enclosing the figure, will form a square."

Vitruvius list also gives a list of ratios or proportions among body parts (hands, feet, cubit, arms, navel, etc.). An example:

The length of the foot is a sixth part of the height of the body. The fore-arm a fourth part. The width of the breast a fourth part . . .”

and so on.

Vitruvius wrote that a building should be symmetric and proportionated to be beautiful. Both attributes can be found always in nature and there’s no more perfect natural example in symmetry and proportion than the human body.

So, what the masters attempted to do was to draw a human figure that matched Vitruvius set of proportions, and that was inscribed in a circle and a square.

If they could make the area of both figures the same, the better.

With it, they would have a cannon of proportions that would be perfect as it was based on the human being—and that would be handy when designing churches and other buildings.

But there's a problem:

You cannot “square the circle,” at least not with the math that was used in Renaissance because Pi is an irrational number (if it would only come to it senses).

I won’t write a long boring explanation that most of you would skip anyway; I have done something better: check out the videos next to this capsule.

The first one explains why you cannot have a perfect answer to squaring the circle, and the second one explains how Leonardo worked the problem to a very close approximation.

The Other Vitruvian Men

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Vitruvian Manin the revised edition of "De Architectura" by Vitruvius illustrated by Cesare Cesariano in 1521.Francesco di Giorgio Martini - Illustration from the Trattato di architettura - c. 1470Francesco di Giorgio Martini - Drawing for a Church
Vitruvian Manin the revised edition of "De Architectura" by Vitruvius illustrated by Cesare Cesariano in 1521.
Vitruvian Manin the revised edition of "De Architectura" by Vitruvius illustrated by Cesare Cesariano in 1521. | Source
Francesco di Giorgio Martini - Illustration from the Trattato di architettura - c. 1470
Francesco di Giorgio Martini - Illustration from the Trattato di architettura - c. 1470 | Source
Francesco di Giorgio Martini - Drawing for a Church
Francesco di Giorgio Martini - Drawing for a Church | Source

Strange Facts

Was Leonardo's Vitruvian Man Ill? Specialists from the Imperial College of London analyzed The Vitruvian Man and found that the drawing shows a hernia in the groin (left). They believe Leonardo based his drawing in the corpse of a man that may have died of this.

The Other Vitruvian Men

Leonardo da Vinci was not the only one who worked on this problem, nor the first.

Vitruvius book had drawings, but they were lost in time. When the book was edited and published, several masters draw their interpretations.

They were not very good and looked odd, not close to Leonardo's masterpiece.

Check some of them in the illustrations next to this capsule.

These masters also draw Vitruvian Men:

  • Fra Giovanni Giocondo
  • Cesare Cesariano
  • Francisco Giorgi
  • Taccola
  • Francisco di Giorgio
  • Giacomo Andrea Da Ferrara

The work of the last one has just been discovered. Some scholars think that Leonardo may have copied the idea from him.

(If you want to know more read the Smithsonian's article I included in the links at the end of this hub).

More Sources of Information

Leonardo´s Notes on the Vitruvian Man Drawing

The notes on Leonardo's drawing, in mirror writing, come from the Vitruvius book. This is how they start:

"The architect Vetruvio, puts in his work that the measurements of man are distributed like this:

  • a palm is equal to four fingers (1:4)
  • a foot is equal to four palms (1:4)
  • a cubit is equal to six palms (1:6)
  • four cubits are equal to a man (4:1)
  • a pace is four cubits (1:4)
  • a man is equal to 24 palms (1:24)

and these measurements are in his buildings".

Note: I added the ratios.

And that is the story behind this drawing. Thanks for reading!

And Now, Just for Fun—a Vitruvian Man Craft Tutorial!

Leonardo's Best

Which of Leonardo's works do you believe is the best of these three?

See results

© 2014 Gabriela Hdez


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    • CandyTale profile imageAUTHOR

      Gabriela Hdez 

      6 years ago from Valencia, Spain


      I am glad you liked. Leonardo's life is quite interesting, there's no aspect of it that won't surprise you if you dig deeper.


      Candy Tale AKA Gaby H

    • MJennifer profile image

      Marcy J. Miller 

      6 years ago from Arizona

      Candy Tale, this was quite interesting. I recently enjoyed the Leonardo exhibit at our state science museum and running across your article on the Vitruvian man is a perfect follow-up. Well done and thorough -- right down to the mention of the Vitruvian man's hernia!

      Best -- Mj


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