Da Vinci's The Vitruvian Man: History & Golden Ratio

Instructor: Cassie Beyer

Cassie holds a master's degree in history and has spent five years teaching history and the humanities from ancient times to the Renaissance.

Leonardo da Vinci's image of the Vitruvian Man is an iconic symbol of human proportions. Learn the origin of this piece of work, the theories behind it, and its relationship with the golden ratio.

Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man

Nearly everyone has seen it, even if they haven't had a name for it: a naked male contained within a circle and square. Created around the year 1500 AD by Leonardo da Vinci, the image is commonly known as the Vitruvian Man. It is a study of the ideal proportions of the human form. It is part of a book written by Luca Pacioli known as the 'Divine Proportion'.

While da Vinci was more of an artist, he was also a dedicated scientist, illustrating the things he observed and designing feats of engineering. Vitruvian Man is a study of the human form visually perfected through the application of mathematics. People, such as da Vinci, saw mathematics as a universal constant, with proper proportions repeating themselves across the universe.

It is known as the Vitruvian Man because it is actually an illustration of concepts described by the Roman Vitruvius in the 1st century BC. Vitruvius, in turn, was actually describing a work known as the 'Canon' by Polykleitos, a Greek from the 5th century BC.

Historical Background: The Greek Search for Perfection

The goal of ancient Greek artwork was often to represent humanity at its most perfect and ideal. However, naturalism was also important. A big part of this attempt at idealism and naturalism was to figure out the proper proportions of the human body, how the various parts compared to each other and to the larger whole.

Polykleitos's 'Canon' described these ratios, although he didn't invent them. Instead, he was writing about what many artists were doing at the time. By the time of Rome, Vitruvius clearly had a copy of the 'Canon' and wrote about it. This is good for current historians because no copy of the 'Canon' is known to still exist.

Vitruvius's Proportions

The Vitruvian Man illustrates a variety of different proportions in the human body.

  • With arms outstretched, a man is as wide as he is tall, with the genitals as the midpoint. (Green)
  • The knees are halfway between the genitals and the feet. (Blue)
  • The chest is halfway between the genitals and the top of the head. (Blue)
  • The chest is the same width as a quarter of the height. (Red)
  • The measurement from the elbow to the fingertips is also a quarter of the height (Red)
  • The nose is halfway between the hairline and the chin. (Orange)
  • The eyebrows are halfway between the nose and hairline. (Orange)
  • The lips are halfway between the nose and chin. (Orange)
  • The head is one-eighth the total height.
  • The hand is one-tenth the total height.
  • The foot is one-sixth the total height.

Da Vinci

These rules were routinely used by Greek artists, and they were borrowed by the Romans and then by Renaissance artists, such as da Vinci.

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