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The Vitruvian Man at the center of the Universe

Elvira Valentina Resta

Art & History Writer

Inspired by the Roman architect Marcus Vitruvia, in the 13th century, Leonardo da Vinci created one of the most iconic images known to humankind. Through the creation of the Vitruvian Man, da Vinci attempted to elevate humanity to a higher level, through the complete synthesis of mathematics, art, architecture the cosmos, philosophy, science and the divine.

The famous drawing "Studies of the proportions of the human body", the "Vitruvian Man",1490/95, (Galleries of the Academy in Venice) disappeared for more than four centuries.  In 1952, it was rediscovered and brought into being again, with an acute analysis by Rudolph Wittkower in his famous essay on proportions. Since then, it has moved from the archives of history to a larger place in the art world and popular culture-the golden reference for the perfect equation of the human form.
Across his yellow notebooks, in pen and ink,  Leonardo first drew the geometric figures that would define the symmetry of the anatomical proportions of the human body. Upon these structures his human figure began to emerge. The messy and decomposed writing of the artist/scientist on the pages of the famous image, establishes the anthropomorphic measures of man with respect to architecture, which was a great influence on his mind. Leonardo believed everything was connected and influenced by each other. And in fact, he designed cathedrals after the proportions, and in likeness to the human skull.
Leonardo’s work and ideas, born from the  Renaissance, are pure artifacts of the profound relationship between art and science. In the 1450’s, the concept of art and the laws of creation placed the Artist and Scientist in the same arena of knowledge and innovation. A symbiotic relationship that relied on one another for ingenuity and the birth of new ideas.  As Neoplatonism began to emerge, the thinkers of the time began to ponder how humans could climb the ladder of intellect in relationship to god.
According to this school of thought of the era, the Scientist strove to uncover the laws that govern the universe, while the Artist tried to materialize the rules and harmony of divine creation. Thus, through this partnership of cohesion and at times tension, the theory of perspective was born. Geometry and Euclidean optics was the new way of seeing the world. The drawing of the Vitruvian Man is a  mathematical portrait, with man inscribed in a square where the measure of the side of the square is given by the amplitude of the arms that, by the height of the human figure, is collected within a circumference.  Architect Franca Manetti Valli brought this deeper understanding of the work to the modern mind. According to her, the figure of da Vinci’s man presents key points: the jugular, the navel and the genital organ.  There is a precise relationship between the distances of these points and the measures that characterize the Vitruvian Man. She believed, as did other scholars, that these relationships are essentially dominated and defined by the golden ratio. 
Da Vinci’s ultimate “divine man” in beautiful composition, makes explicit reference to the square that reflects the earth and the circle that represents the otherworldly sphere, and the cosmos in relation to the microcosm of humanism. If you put a compass in the navel of the figure you can form the perfect circle, and with the arm and leg span, can create a perfect square, which is using the human form as a metaphor for the still unsolvable math problem of squaring a circle. The analysis of the movement of the limbs that form perfect geometrical expressions, reveal that when you mirror the rotation of the arms you get a rectangle. In the definition of the opening of the legs you get a square, and these two areas are equivalent to each other. The side of the rectangle that inscribes the arms is the golden section of the side of the square, and the legs move in perfect orchestration and precise imagery within this template. The golden section that contains the whole human figure is the precise geometric formula of Euclidian patterns. (Element, proposition 11).
This higher man is the ultimate love letter to the Divine. The Greek letter "Tau"  between the upper rectangle and the lower square is an etymological form of reverence.  Through the invention of the Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci positions humankind in the cosmos, not based on abstract idealism or irrational values, but with scientific formulas that can be built geometrically-exactly the same as any mathematical structure. 


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