Art Through Time: A Global View
The Body Art: Vitruvian Man
Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic and much copied Vitruvian Man brings together two essential aspects of Renaissance notions concerning the body.
The drawing shows a robust male figure in motion, circumscribed within a circle and a square. The image is framed by Leonardo’s own translation of De Architectura, a treatise written by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius (active 46–30 BCE). According to Vitruvius, circles and squares represented the perfect geometrical units and could be used to create ideal spaces. This idea inspired the work of a number of Renaissance architects, including Leonardo’s close confidant Donato Bramante (1444–1514), whose designs for the reconstructed St. Peter’s Basilica were based on these two basic shapes. Leonardo’s complicated theoretical drawing asserts that man is also constructed from these geometrical units and, thus, is perfectly proportioned. As such, man stands at the center of the universe, the point from which all else is measured.
The drawing also demonstrates Leonardo’s interest in anatomy and the study of actual human proportions. Leonardo carried out dissections throughout his career and executed detailed drawings on both the interior workings of the body and its exterior form. This intense interest in the science of the body sometimes came at the expense of art. Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man attempts to show the ideal male nude; however, in order to fit the figure in its frame, he must make slight corrections to the body. In this case, the Vitruvian tradition has forced Leonardo to create the illusion of perfection at the expense of scientific observation.
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.”
Bambach, Carmen C., ed. Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman, exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003.
Clark, Kenneth. Leonardo da Vinci, rev. ed. Introduction by Martin Kemp. London; New York: Penguin, 1989.
Kemp, Martin. Leonardo da Vinci: The Marvellous Works of Nature and Man.Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
O’Malley, Charles Donald, and Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo da Vinci on the Human Body. New York: Gramercy, 2003 reissue.