You know the picture. Everybody does. It's Leonardo da Vinci's iconic man in a circle and the
square, the figure known as Vitruvian Man--or, as Tim Howard, a producer at Radiolab once aptly put it to me, "the naked guy doing jumping jacks."
But if everybody knows the picture, almost nobody knows anything about its story. When I began looking into it, a couple of years ago, I discovered, to my great surprise, that nobody had even ever written a book on the picture.
So I decided I'd write one myself--and the (nonfiction) result, out this week, is Da Vinci's Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in his Own Image [Free Press, $26.99]
Writing the book took me on a rich and fascinating ride: a romp through Leonardo's remarkable
life and times and through the larger, and often abidingly strange, history of the ideas he played with in his work. Leonardo was not just a visual artist but also a visual thinker, so the story demands period illustrations. I ended up unearthing and reproducing more than sixty in the book.
Here are five that help put Leonardo's own picture in perspective--along with, at the end, Vitruvian Man himself.
Leonardo drew Vitruvian Man to illustrate a passage on human proportions written some fifteen centuries earlier by the Roman architect Vitruvius. At least in part, therefore, the picture is an architectural drawing--something that's easy to overlook. "No temple can be put together coherently without symmetry and proportion," Vitruvius wrote, "unless it conforms exactly to the principle relating the members of a well-shaped man." At the most literal level, what he has in mind was something like the above image: a relief embodying a set of measurements based on the ideal human form, which architects and laborers could use to ensure the symmetry and proportion of their buildings.
Vitruvius didn't just describe human proportions in the passage illustrated by Leonardo. He also noted that the ideal human body could be made to fit inside a circle and inside a square. This was an allusion to the theory of the microcosm: the idea that the human body represented a miniature version of the cosmos as a whole. Greek and Roman philosophers had long played with this idea--associating the circle with things cosmic, and the square with things earthly--and in later centuries Jewish, Muslim, and Christian thinkers all borrowed it and made it their own. The diagram of the microcosm above by Isidore of Seville portrays man (homo) as an image of both the world (mundus) and the year (annus)--that is, a vision of all time and space. "All things are contained in man," he wrote. "And in him exists the nature of all things." The idea endured well into the Renaissance, as the illustration above by Gregor Reich, showing the a man embodying the cosmos, reveals.
Related to the theory of the microcosm was the idea--ancient in its origins but alive and well even in the Renaissance--that various parts of the human body corresponded and were influenced by various parts of the heavens. Astrology and medicine were therefore inextricable. Medicine, in some respects, amounted to the art of determining the precise influence of the heavens on the body, with an eye to keeping the microcosm and macrocosm in alignment. "When man looks to the signs in the heavens," one medieval Christian maxim went, "God is revealed. And when God is revealed, man is healed." The above illustration shows the correspondences between the signs of the zodiac and the human body.
Vitruvius didn't illustrate his work. It would be some fifteen hundred years, it turns out, until somebody would try to work out visually how exactly one might fit the human body inside a circle and a square. But Leonardo himself can't claim priority. The Sienese architect Francesco di Giorgio Martini got there first, in the early 1480s, when he produced the above image for his Treatise on Architecture. In all likelihood Leonardo knew this image: his own annotated copy of Francesco's Treatise survives today, and he's known to have spent time with Francesco in 1490, the year he seems to have drawn Vitruvian Man. Another of Leonardo's friends, the architect Giacomo Andrea da Ferrara, may also have beaten him to the punch in 1490, as I lay out in my book (and in short form here).
The illustrations I've reproduced here can give only the most fleeting sense of the ideas that Leonardo was playing with when he drew Vitruvian Man. He was not only a visual artist but a visual thinker, a man who ardently believed images to be the most powerful way of capturing, compressing, and conveying ideas and information. This certainly holds true for Vitruvian Man, which, as I've learned, contains enough to fill an entire book. Not that Leonardo would ever have written it. "With what words, O writer," he asked dismissively, alongside one of his later studies of the human body, "will you describe with similar perfection the entire configuration that the drawing here does?" He might as well have been describing Vitruvian Man.