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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

Additional Resources

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.

Vitruvian Man

» Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452–1519)

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.

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