Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and the Measure of All Things

Pablo Irizar

“Vitruvian Man”, Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1490 (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy).

This is a sketch of the “Vitruvian Man”. Many people instantly recognize the figure of the male body, inscribed simultaneously in a circle and a square, as a work of the Italian Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519). Rarely, however, is the significance of this drawing appreciated and its inspiration in ancient classical sources acknowledged.

As the term Renaissance suggests, this period celebrated a rebirth of Classical culture: its sources, ideas, wisdom and heritage. Depicted below, the Scuola di Atena (the ‘School of Athens’ by the Italian painter Raphael), which shows the various philosophical schools of ancient Greece, captures this retrieval of sources well.

The School of Athens, Raphael, c. 1510 (fresco, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City).

For his sketch, da Vinci drew inspiration from the work of a Roman citizen living at the turn of the 1st century BC, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio – hence the name of the painting, ‘Vitruvian Man’.

Vitruvius wrote an important treatise on architecture called De architectura (On Architecture), which is generally regarded as the oldest surviving work of its kind. Vitruvius was an experienced engineer and builder, although he had previously been a soldier. In his treatise, he explains in detail what Roman architects must consider when planning a project: the location of a site, the materials, techniques, decoration, water sources, the application of sciences, and the use of technology.

The interior design of a Roman home below illustrates clearly the concern for proportion, harmony, and order – something already evident in the idealized Greek house (pictured beneath).

With regards to building, the challenge for the architect was to maintain a fitting proportion between these varied considerations. According to Vitruvius, the best buildings exhibit the harmony of strength, utility and beauty or, in Latin, firmitas, utilitas, venustas.

Now these should be carried out in such a way that account is taken of strength, utility and grace. Account will be taken of strength when the foundations are carried down to the solid ground, and when from each material there is a choice of supplies without parsimony; of utility, when the sites are arranged without mistake and impediment to their use, and a fit and convenient disposition for the aspect of each kind; of grace, when the appearance of the work shall be pleasing and elegant, and the scale of the constituent parts is justly calculated for symmetry. (Arch. 1.3)

Firmness ensures the structural integrity of a building, because a building collapses without a strong foundation. Grounding a structure requires a specific kind of earthly constitution: not too soft, lest it sink, nor too hard, lest it prove difficult to dig, and not brittle, should movement require adaptation. Firmness depends on a foundation situated at the right depth. The height and weight of the building, as well as its integrity, depend on a firm foundation.

The second important aspect of harmony is commodity or usefulness. Presaging our pragmatic attitude today, Vitruvius was realistic about the functional purpose of buildings. In assessing how best to design a building, he insisted, it is crucial to consider how the use of space fulfills its function. No matter how sturdy, a library without shelving space can hardly serve as a library.

The final requirement for harmony is grace or delight in beauty. This aesthetic requirement, often lost or disregarded today at the expense of practicality, is for Vitruvius just as important as firmness and use. Since delight is caused by the harmony and proportion of parts, this aesthetic requirement is the surest expression of harmony and order. Delight is the simplest test of integrity.

Vitruvius presents the order as he does to emphasize a progression – utility relies on sturdiness, and beauty relies on commodity and delight – and to insist that all three orchestrate a common purpose. Together, firmness, commodity and delight ensure the integrity of a building and its harmony.

But why was harmony the bottom line for Vitruvius and not efficiency, as is so often the case perhaps in our world where arguably every aspect follows the dictates of pragmatism?

Following a tradition dating back to the early Greek philosophers known as the Pre-Socratics, who lived some six centuries before Vitruvius, the Romans believed harmony to be the key to understanding the cosmos. For the Pythagoreans, for example, the κόσμος (cosmos) dictates the order of the universe, an order that permeates all of existence: metaphysical, epistemological, moral, ethical. Below is a medieval depiction of the cosmos characterized by concentric circles, with the earth, and humanity, at the centre.

A diagram from Peter Apian’s Cosmographia (1539), which drew on medieval ideas.

Seeking harmony through firmness, commodity and delight was for Vitruvius an exercise not only in building but in mimicking the order of the universe, and of ordering human affairs accordingly. By attaining order, humanity assumed its allotted place in nature and in the harmony of the universe.

Vitruvius saw the human body itself as a paradigmatic, and indeed enigmatic, manifestation of the harmony and proportions formalized in his principles of building. For instance, he insists on the body’s symmetry as the measuring rod of a temple’s dimensions:

For the human body is so designed by nature that the face, from the chin to the top of the forehead and the lowest roots of the hair, is a tenth part of the whole height; the open hand from the wrist to the tip of the middle finger is just the same; the head from the chin to the crown is an eighth, and with the neck and shoulder from the top of the breast to the lowest roots of the hair is a sixth; from the middle of the breast to the summit of the crown is a fourth. If we take the height of the face itself, the distance from the bottom of the chin to the under side of the nostrils is one third of it; the nose from the under side of the nostrils to a line between the eyebrows is the same; from there to the lowest roots of the hair is also a third, comprising the forehead. 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 attained to great and endless renown. (Arch. 3.1)

Note the careful description of dimensions and proportions which, as Vitruvius claims, was used to sculpt compelling renditions of the body.

The sculpture below – perhaps of the second or first centuries BC – depicts this care for proportions.

Laocoon and his Sons, date and sculptor(s?) uncertain (Vatican Museums, Vatican City).

In applying observations about the human body to fashion architecture, Vitruvius uses a phrase attributed to a philosopher of antiquity, Protagoras (DK 80B1):

Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not.

This means human beings are the measuring rod of all reality – even of what does not exist!

Moved by a sentiment akin to Protagoras’, Leonardo da Vinci’s application of the Vitruvian rules to the human body proved an invaluable insight. In exhibiting awesome harmony and proportion, the human body was, for da Vinci, a mirror of the order of the universe.

In notes adjacent to his sketch, da Vinci termed the human body a cosmografia del minor mondo, which means, a cosmography of the microcosm. In this suggestion, often attributed to an eclectic body of Greek and Egyptian literature called Hermetica, da Vinci sees the order of the body, the microcosm, as analogous to the order of the universe, the macrocosm. This diagram by the 17th-century Englishman Robert Fludd, depicts the body as a microcosm of the macrocosm.

Inspired by the view that in a sense the body contains the universe, da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” attempts to satisfy visually the symmetric requirements for harmony laid out by Vitruvius. In the figure of the human body lies hidden, for Vitruvius, as da Vinci well understood, the mystery of the universe. The “Vitruvian Man” was in a sense the measure of all things.

Christians in late Antiquity, such as Augustine of Hippo (354–430), applied similar insights to make sense of the figure of the cross and the body of Jesus outstretched on it. For Augustine, the cross was the key to charting the architecture of spiritual deliverance from sin, or what Christians call salvation.

Below is a depiction of the crucifixion by the 15th-century Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden.

Christ on the Cross with Mary and St John, Rogier van der Weyden, 1457-64 (El Escorial, Spain).

However, most early Christians believed that only a Man-God could fulfill the role of grounding reality. But why? This will be discussed in a subsequent article.

Considered as a microcosm, the body measures all things, in its inherent firmness, functionality and beauty. The human body is therefore a roadmap to reality.

Pablo Irizar is Adjunct Professor of Catholic Studies at McGill University and Director of the Newman Centre, also at McGill. He specializes in the thought of Augustine and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition.