Vitruvian Man

The Vitruvian Man is a world-renowned drawing created by Leonardo da Vinci around the year 1487. It is accompanied by notes based on the work of the famed architect, Vitruvius. The drawing, which is in pen and ink on paper, depicts a male figure in two superimposed positions with his arms and legs apart and simultaneously inscribed in a circle and square. The drawing and text are sometimes called the Canon of Proportions or, less often, Proportions of Man. It is stored in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, Italy, and, like most works on paper, is displayed only occasionally.

The drawing is based on the correlations of ideal human proportions with geometry described by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius in Book III of his treatise De Architectura. Vitruvius described the human figure as being the principal source of proportion among the Classical orders of architecture. Other artists had attempted to depict this concept, with less success. Leonardo’s drawing is traditionally named in honor of the architect.

This image exemplifies the blend of art and science during the Renaissance and provides the perfect example of Leonardo’s keen interest in proportion. In addition, this picture represents a cornerstone of Leonardo’s attempts to relate man to nature. Encyclopaedia Britannica online states, “Leonardo envisaged the great picture chart of the human body he had produced through his anatomical drawings and Vitruvian Man as a cosmografia del minor mondo (cosmography of themicrocosm). He believed the workings of the human body to be an analogy for the workings of the universe.”

According to Leonardo’s preview in the accompanying text, written in mirror writing, it was made as a study of the proportions of the (male) human body as described in Vitruvius:

  • a palm is the width of four fingers
  • a foot is the width of four palms
  • a cubit is the width of six palms
  • a pace is four cubits
  • a man’s height is four cubits (and thus 24 palms)
  • erit eaque mensura ad manas pansas” (Literally: “It will be the same in measure to the spread out hands.”)
  • the length of a man’s outspread arms (arm span) is equal to his height
  • the distance from the hairline to the bottom of the chin is one-tenth of a man’s height
  • the distance from the top of the head to the bottom of the chin is one-eighth of a man’s height
  • the distance from the bottom of the neck to the hairline is one-sixth of a man’s height
  • the maximum width of the shoulders is a quarter of a man’s height
  • the distance from the middle of the chest to the top of the head is a quarter of a man’s height
  • the distance from the elbow to the tip of the hand is a quarter of a man’s height
  • the distance from the elbow to the armpit is one-eighth of a man’s height
  • the length of the hand is one-tenth of a man’s height
  • the distance from the bottom of the chin to the nose is one-third of the length of the head
  • the distance from the hairline to the eyebrows is one-third of the length of the face
  • the length of the ear is one-third of the length of the face
  • the length of a man’s foot is one-sixth of his height
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3 Responses to Vitruvian Man

  1. alfy says:

    It is surprising that Leonardo does not seem to have investigated these supposed relationships more closely. The experimental work involved is a shade less difficult than getting a helicopter design to fly when internal combustion engines were not to appear for another four centuries. If you take a group of people and measure their heights and armspans they show a lot of individual variation.

    If the contention that Height = armspan was true, a graphical plot of one parameter against the other would show a straight line with a gradient of 1.
    What the plot actually shows is an oval shaped “cloud” of points concentrated along a line but with plenty of points well clear of the line. Basically, both parameters show a “normal” or bell-curve distribution like most other biological parameters. The plot is essentially a normal distribution in two dimensions.

    I am not criticising Leonardo for failing to know about statistics or the normal frequency distribution curve which also came four centuries after him. Had he measured a group of live people the figures alone would tell him the Vitruvian ratios were bollocks.

    I am suggesting that as an experimentalist “he should have done the experiment”. Here I quote the Australian scientist, Howard Florey. I paraphrase him, “If you do the experiment and it doesn’t work, then tough luck. If you don’t do the experiment you will never ever know.”
    This is relevant to the history of penicillin. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, but he actually did bugger all about it. He found that its potency seem to be drastically reduced in blood and he therefore concluded that it would not work in a living mammal body. HE DID NOT ACTUALLY DO THE EXPERIMENT.

    Howard Florey injected six mice with virulent bacteria. He injected only three with a crude penicillin extract, and these three survived. The other buggers died. From this in 1940 came the whole development of penicillin and antibiotics. Fleming got the fame but Florey was the man who made it all work. Hands up deskerati fans who have ever heard of Florey and his collaborator, Ernst Chain?

    This deskarati crit sets a new record by shooting down two of Phil Krause’s heroes, Leonardo and Fleming in one go.

  2. Pingback: Howard Florey, Baron Florey |

  3. Tom says:

    Nice picture though.

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