The Cultural Tutor

The Cultural Tutor

21-10-2022

22:23

Leonardo da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man" is one of the world's most famous images. But what is it? Who the hell is he? Why does he have four arms and four legs? The answer probably has something to do with the room you're sitting in right now...

Even if you weren't sure what it was called, you've almost certainly seen this image before, whether the original or a parody. In film, online, on t-shirts, on album covers, on coins: it's everywhere. But who was the Vitruvian Man? Well...

His name is a derivative of Vitruvius. And who was he? Vitruvius is probably the most important architect who ever lived, but not because of anything he built. In fact, he doesn't seem to have been a particularly noteworthy architect. Rather, it's because of something he wrote.

Vitruvius was a Roman military engineer and architect who lived in the 1st century B.C. and, we think, worked with Julius Caesar. In his later life, perhaps around 30 B.C., he wrote a short treatise called De Architectura, the *only* surviving architectural work from Antiquity.

In his treatise Vitruvius lays down the foundational principles of Roman (and, by extension, Greek) architecture. He talks about the classical orders, the education of an architect, materials, war machines, urban planning, and more. And, crucially, he wrote about proportion.

Proportion was *fundamental* to classical architecture. As Vitruvius wrote, every single element of a building must have a strict proportional relationship to the other, thus creating an overall appearance of harmony, elegance, and strength.

Where do these proportions come from? Well, Vitruvius theorised that the ancient builders who had established the principles of classical architecture based them on the proportions of the human body. And, crucially for us, he described those human proportions.

And so his argument was that architectural proportions should themselves take from the naturally harmonious proportional relationships of the human body. That was, he theorised, the key to building a perfect structure and therefore the foundation of classical architecture.

When Vitruvius' treatise was "rediscovered" in 1414 it caused quite a stir. See, interest in Ancient Rome had been growing. At first it was scholarly and artistic, but soon enough architects became interested in Roman buildings and how different they were to the Gothic style.

Vitruvius' De Architectura was the key to finally, properly understanding them. It was almost like the Rosetta Stone of architecture. First Brunelleschi, then Bramante, took up this new architectural language and brought it back to life:

There was also a wave of new architectural treatises. The first of them was called On the Art of Building, written by Giovanni Battista Alberti in 1452. It was based both on Vitruvius' work and "archaeological" investigation.

The Renaissance had well and truly begun. Architects were now designing building based on the principles of classical design, as explained by Vitruvius, with all its rules of proportion and other structural and aesthetic traits.

And so, finally, we come to Leonardo da Vinci, the ultimate Renaissance man, one of history's greatest ever minds, and an indefatigable polymath. He was born in 1452, when the Renaissance was already in full swing. But he, of course, raised it to its zenith:

Leonardo's Vitruvian Man, whose name you now recognise, was a notebook sketch made in around 1490 based on the human proportions described by Vitruvius in De Architectura.

So that's why Leonardo drew the Vitruvian Man; it was, in many ways, the literal and figurative heart of the Renaissance. It combined ancient history, classical architecture, mathematics, anatomy, drawing, art... a powerful, lasting symbol.

Vitruvius' proportions were the basis and inspiration for Renaissance architecture, which revived the classical style, and therefore also of Neoclassical architecture, which has dominated and spread across the world ever since. Not just in obvious examples like these:

But also in countless, small, almost unnoticable ways. Remember that classical architecture is a language. If there's a pediment or cornice, if there are dentils or dropped keystones or orders, rustication or vermiculation, a Gibbs Surround or Venetian Window; that's classical.

So there's a good chance you're in or near a building right now which has some classical element or influence, an architectural language given to us, at first, by Vitruvius. And Leonardo's drawing perhaps contains the very proportions of that building.

And that is, in so many words, the Vitruvian Man.



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