The Proportions of
the Human Figure
Vitruvian Man is perhaps Leonardo da Vinci's most famous illustration.
In this work, Leonardo used both image and text to express the ideas and
theories of Vitruvius, a first century Roman architect and author of 'De
Architectura libri X'. The Vitruvian ideas, presented by Leonardo, formed
the basis of Renaissance proportion theories in art and architecture.
his treatise, Vitruvius discussed proper symmetry and proportion as related
to the building of temples. The architect believed that the proportions
and measurements of the human body, which was divinely created, were perfect
and correct. He therefore proposed that a properly constructed temple
should reflect and relate to the parts of the human body. He noted that
a human body can be symmetrically inscribed within both a circle and a
square; this idea influenced his architectural practice.
Leonardo's illustration of the theory of Vitruvius is a pen ink drawing
of a male figure whose outstretched limbs touch the circumference of a
circle and the edges of a square. His navel falls in the exact center
of the circle. There is a changing perspective in the work. It is static
in structure but dynamic in its presentation of a moving, living man.
Hand-written text surrounds the drawing of the figure.
Various artists and architects had illustrated Vitruvius' theory prior
to Leonardo, but da Vinci's drawing differs from the previous works in
that the male figure adopts two different positions within the same image.
He is simultaneously within the circle and the square; movement and liveliness
are suggested by the figure's active arms and legs. Leonardo's figure
appears as a living being with unruly hair, distinct facial features and
a strong build. While the subject is lively, thin lines on his form show
the significant points of the proportion scheme. These lines indicate
da Vinci's concern with the architectural meaning of the work. Leonardo
is representing the body as a building and illustrating Renaissance theory
which linked the proportions of the human body with architectural planning.
The text which surrounds the figure in Vitruvian Man paraphrases Vitruvius'
theory. It is apparent that da Vinci wrote the text after creating the
drawing, as the words are tailored to the contours of the circle and the
square. The presence of the text legitimates the image; the authority
of Vitruvius explains why Leonardo created the drawing. The image is not,
however, simply an illustration of the text. Words and image interact
in the work and the significance of the piece lies in the connection between
Vitruvian Man is Leonardo da Vinci's own reflection on human proportion
and architecture, made clear through words and image. The purpose of the
illustration is to bring together ideas about art, architecture, human
anatomy and symmetry in one distinct and commanding image. By combing
text and illustration, da Vinci evokes a meaning which could not be created
through words or image alone.
Vitruvian Man's importance lies in its clear reflection of the ideas
of its time. It demonstrates the enthusiasm for the theories of Vitruvius
among da Vinci and his contemporaries.