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13 / The Body

Vitruvian Man
Vitruvian Man
Artist / Origin Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452–1519)
Region: Europe
Date 1492
Material Pen and ink
Dimensions H: 13 ½ in (34.3 cm.), W: 9 5/8 in. (24.5 cm.)
Location Galleria dell’ Accademia, Venice, Italy
Credit © The Gallery Collection/CORBIS

expert perspective

Stephen J. CampbellProfessor of the History of Art, Johns Hopkins University

Vitruvian Man

» Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452–1519)

expert perspective

Stephen J. Campbell Stephen J. Campbell Professor of the History of Art, Johns Hopkins University

The body is a model for organizing experience. Top, bottom, high, low, the head, the belly—these all have tremendous metaphoric resonance in theology, in political theory, models of social organization, all across every branch of knowledge of thinking in the Western tradition from the Greeks onwards.

Vitruvian Man is about the attempt to draw architectural forms, which are abstract and geometric, from the human body. Leonardo’s solution to drawing that figure, which is prescribed by the ancient writer and architect Vitruvius, the premise is that a mature man standing with arms outstretched can be inscribed within a circle and a square. Leonardo finds a solution by fudging it a bit, moving the legs, of getting both a circle and a square. What I like about the Vitruvian icon, if we can call it that, is the kind of struggle that I think Leonardo’s generation is really engaged in between the body as norm—and when we’re talking about Vitruvius, absolutely prescriptive about proportions of the normative—and ideal human figure. Leonardo is working with that, as are many of his contemporaries. They believe in normativity—that there are ‘normal bodies.’ At the same time, Leonardo is engaged in empirical research on the human body. Body as something that you open up, you look into, you understand how all its parts work. You think of it as parts at the same time while you’re trying to think of it as this modular whole. If you look at the face of the Vitruvian figure, this is not an Apollonian face, it’s the face of a mature man, it’s almost portrait-like.

Artists within twenty years of Leonardo have given up. They refer to the idea of empirical study, but when you look at the works that they produce, what really sings for that artist is the artificial element of art making—that bodies made by art are not like bodies in nature. It’s already the case with Michelangelo. Michelangelo is the green light for other artists, really, to generate virtual bodies from their own brain. The key with Michelangelo is this is all premised, or the idea is, the claim that enables him to do that is that he has internalized the structure of the human body through intensive processes of dissection, presumably drawing. We have Leonardo’s drawings—we don’t have so many anatomical drawings by Michelangelo. He’s supposed to have dissected, what is it, fifty bodies?

When you look then at a work like The Battle of Cascina—you can even look at The David from a few years beforehand, we’re talking about the middle of the first decade of the sixteenth century—and you look at those figures and you wonder, How did he draw those? Did he set up a model in the studio? You know, striking those poses, those attitudes? It would be absolutely impossible to get a model to hold those unstable, precarious poses. No. What Michelangelo wants you to recognize is that he knows the human body so well that he can generate these bodies from his imagination. It’s such a special moment, it’s such a rich moment where we have the modes of representation of the human body. It’s not just Adam and Eve any more, it’s not just The Last Judgment, it’s classical sculpture, it’s the new ideals of the beautified human form in Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael—the idea of the body as something that can be studied, mapped, described through means of graphic representation. We have print culture circulating artist’s designs that includes anatomy books and anatomical texts. This is what shapes the sort of very, very manifold forms of the body in sixteenth-century art and also manifold ways of thinking about one individual figure.” 

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