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Toby Lester

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The History Of The Vitruvian Man

Posted: 02/16/2012 8:37 am

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.

Human proportions
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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.
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