One of the most famous drawings of all time is Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man of 1490. In the original sketch, which currently resides in Venice, Leonardo used both ink and watercolor. Leonardo’s image has become an icon for art, science, and the Renaissance. Today it’s such a widely recognized symbol; you can see it everywhere—in high-school textbooks and museum galleries, even on T-shirts.
What is it about this particular drawing that has generated such attention? What is this drawing even about? The source of inspiration for the Vitruvian Man was, not surprisingly, Vitruvius. But who was he?
Vitruvian was actually a Roman engineer from the first century B.C. who codified some of the first basic principles of architecture. Serving as chief architect under Julius Caesar, Vitruvius was ancient Rome’s resident expert in urban planning and structural design, and he wrote the first definitive treatise on architecture, The Ten Books on Architecture (around 27 B.C.), in which he specified guidelines for city planning, building materials, hydraulics, and other civic projects. This influential book also established differences for religious, private, and public design the first time that such distinctions had been laid out so clearly.
Vitruvius expressed the important relationship between architecture and social-cultural values. It is likely that Leonardo’s first exposure to Vitruvius, and his ideas on form and proportion, came during his apprenticeship to Verrochio. He was also probably influenced by Alberti’s interpretations of the same subject.
In fact, Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man could have been a poster child for Renaissance ideals of humanism and proportion. The drawing consists of a square that is partially inscribed in a circle, with a human male form inscribed into the combination of these two basic geometric shapes. This drawing has become so celebrated because it’s the first example of a human form that wasn’t forced into an unnatural distortion simply to accommodate the geometry. Architecture, for Leonardo and most Renaissance architects, was a matter of harmonious modularity.
As Leonardo proved with this drawing, it was possible to view the human body the same way: a composition of anatomical building blocks comparable to those of the built world. Interestingly, it’s been said that in a not-so- rare moment of artistic hubris, Leonardo may have borrowed his own self-portrait to use for the head of Vitruvius in this influential work! Doesn’t it seem appropriate, though, that Leonardo himself might be both model and artist for this symbol of the Renaissance?