Turn over an Italian one-euro coin and you’ll see it. Turn on “The Simpsons” and you might see it, too – albeit as a spoof. Watch the “The Da Vinci Code” and you’ll definitely see it – in the form of a dead man splayed out on the floor of the Louvre.
“It” is Vitruvian Man, a world-famous drawing by Leonardo da Vinci that depicts a naked, well-proportioned man in two overlaid sketches inside a circle and a square – one bears an uncanny resemblance to Christ on the cross, while the other looks like someone trying to block a doorway. Taken together, Vitruvian man resembles a naked man doing jumping jacks.
But what does the picture actually mean? And where did Leonardo get the idea for the drawing? These and other intriguing questions are raised and answered by Toby Lester in Da Vinci’s Ghost: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Famous Drawing, a taut, engrossing tale that spans nearly 2,000 years and has its origins in the ancient Rome of Caesar Augustus.
Nowadays Vitruvian Man is everywhere, “deployed variously to celebrate all sorts of ideas: the grandeur of art, the nature of well-being, the power of geometry and mathematics, the ideals of the Renaissance, the beauty of the human body, the creative potential of the human mind, the universality of the human spirit, and more.”
But the meanings associated with the drawing have accumulated gradually. Da Vinci’s sketch (circa 1490) was not famous in his time, not even as several of his other works (The Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, The Virgin of the Rocks) became well-known and reproduced. In fact it wasn’t until 1956 that Vitruvian Man garnered widespread public attention, when British art historian Kenneth Clark reproduced the drawing in a best-selling work called “The Nude: A Study in Ideal Forms.”
So what took so long? And what was Leonardo’s initial inspiration? It all starts with Vitruvius, an ancient Roman architect and military engineer.
In “Ten Books on Architecture,” Vitruvius explained how the laws governing the macro (the universe) could be understood by examining the laws governing the micro (the human body). These, in turn, unveiled the secrets to sound architecture – including the construction of temples, the laying out of roads, the building of an empire.
“The idea of the Roman world as a body was no randomly chosen metaphor,” Lester writes. “It relied on an age-old philosophical conceit: that the human body was a scaled-down version of the world or the cosmos as a whole. Plato and other Greek philosophers had made the analogy repeatedly, as had the Bible ('Let us make man in our image').”
The ideal man, as described by Vitruvius (and supposedly exemplified by Augustus), had certain proportions. For example, “The distance from his chin to the top of his forehead should be equal to the distance from his wrist to the tip of his middle finger – and both should be equal to one-tenth of his total body height.”
He described the proportions with words, not pictures. They wouldn’t be accurately depicted for nearly 1500 years – until Leonardo.
Vitruvius died in obscurity, and “Ten Books on Architecture” all but disappeared during the Dark Ages. A copy emerged in the 8th century, however, and was faithfully copied by monks – not because of its architectural value (“the monks who did consult the work would have had little interest in, or ability to understand, its archaic discussions of building techniques and architectural history”), but because the ideal man, “in the form in which Vitruvius described him, as an exemplar of Augustus… bore an uncanny resemblance to Christ. Each was the son of a god; each represented a cosmic ideal; and each, in its spread-eagled pose, inhabited temples, held the empire together, and embodied the world.”
Yet for years, it seems, no one attempted to faithfully depict this ideal figure. References were seen on maps – a spread-eagled man embracing the world – and these even seemed to slip into the religious visions described by St. Hildegard of Bingen, who would have had access to a copy of Vitruvius’ work. But if attempts were made to portray the image, these efforts did not survive. As Lester explains, this isn’t surprising: before the advent of the printing press, pictures were rare in most books.
“In the eras of the scroll and then the manuscript, scribes were able to reproduce text much more quickly and faithfully than images, which required special artistic talents to reproduce accurately and which degraded quickly when copied imperfectly generation after generation.”
But once Leonardo, the great Italian Renaissance polymath, read a copy of “Ten Books on Architecture,” the pieces were in place for an incarnation.
Lester’s book is a mini-biography of Leonardo, and charts his rise from Vinci to the artist workshops of Florence and Milan. He was a natural philosopher with an insatiable curiosity, a disposition that led him on wild goose chases, yes, but which also educated him about first causes.
“In this context, anything could become for Leonardo a useful analogy for thinking about something else. A human body wasn’t just a human body. It was a machine: a system of gears, pulleys, cables, and levers, animated by a variety of mechanical, hydraulic, and pneumatic forces.”
In sketching Vitruvian Man, Leonardo finally gave shape to the ancient architect’s vision, albeit with slight alterations. These are improvements, Lester and many others have said – changes that reconcile man’s place in the circle (the universe) with his place in the square (the world).
Lester, a writer for The Atlantic whose previous books include “The Fourth Part of the World,” says Vitruvian Man “captures a hinge moment in the history of ideas: the intoxicating, ephemeral moment when art, science and philosophy all seemed to be merging, and when it seemed possible that, with their help, the individual human mind might actually be able to comprehend and depict the nature of… everything.”
Cameron Martin is a columnist for ESPN.com.