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Leonardo Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man Explained

Leonardo Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man

Leonardo Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man

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 who 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 it is a philosophical solution to the nature of man.

Yep, it's 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 not published until 1495. It was written by Leon Battista Alberti (who was another Marcus Vitruvius fan).

Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man of Math

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 the year 15 B.C. He was probably just gathering the knowledge of the era in one book—that is, he is not believed to have “created” all of the ideas in his book.

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 began their study with it.

We must remember that during the Renaissance, architects, artists, and thinkers were in awe of 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 it goes on like this.

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 of symmetry and proportion than the human body.

Squaring the Circle

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, all 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 the Renaissance, because pi (π) is an irrational number (if it would only come to its 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 above this capsule.

One explains why you cannot have a perfect answer to squaring the circle; the other explains how Leonardo worked the problem to a very close approximation.

Strange Facts

Was Leonardo's Vitruvian Man sick? 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 on 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 drew 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 a link below).

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!

Vitruvian Man Craft Tutorial

© 2014 Gabriela Hdez


Gabriela Hdez (author) from Valencia, Spain on February 27, 2014:


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

Marcy J. Miller from Arizona on February 27, 2014:

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