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Leonardo da Vinci and Vitruvian Man

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Most of us have seen Vitruvian Man before Ė the sepia-colored drawing of a human male body inscribed in a circle and a square created by Leonardo da Vinci in the late 1400s. The popular drawing is one of the most reproduced drawings in the world; not only does it commonly represent the medical profession, it has been used as a recognizable motif in a variety of fictional and non-fictional works. The drawing even appears on Euro coinage. What most people donít know is that Vitruvian Man was based on a text written by the Roman architect, Vitruvius. It is generally believed that it was da Vinci who first most successfully interpreted the ancient text that describes the proportional rules represented in the drawing.

Marcus Vitruvius wrote a series of ten books on architecture in the first century. Miraculously, this collection of books, entitled De Architectura, survived into the Renaissance period. In one of the books, the one concerning the design of temples, Vitruvius proposes that the proportions of a temple should be based upon the proportions of the human body since it represents perfection. He then proceeds to describe how a human body yields both a circular and a square outline when the arms and legs of the body are extended. The geometric juxtaposition that Vitruvius describes requires a great deal of interpretation since Vitruvius himself did not provide any drawings to illustrate his point and to make matters worse, his writing itself was difficult to decipher.

Da Vinci's keen interest in proportions inspired him to read the ancient text and attempt a visual interpretation of Vitruviusí principles. However, he was not the only one to do so. Others include Cesare Ceasariano, Albrecht Durer and William Blake. What was innovative about da Vinciís drawing is that the square and the circle do not have the same center. And it is interesting to note that da Vinciís drawing actually differs from Vitruvius ideal by placing the fingertips level with the top of the head and not at the higher angle that Vitruvius suggests.

It is likely that da Vinciís success can be attributed to his unique talent of fusing science with art. Apparently da Vinci used actual male models to experiment with the proportions. This empirical process, using both observation and experimentation to arrive at a conclusion, allowed da Vinci to capture and define the proportional beauty of the human form, even exceeding the guidelines set forth by Vitruvius. It is truly a synthesis of art and science.

The original Vitruvian Man was created with ink and watercolor and measures roughly 10 by 13 inches. The drawing was found in a collection belonging to Giuseppe Bossi, a 17th century Italian painter and author. Bossi used the illustration in a treatise on the proportions of the human body that he dedicated to his friend, the sculptor Antonio Canova. Vitruvian Man was acquired by the Accademia in Venice upon Bossiís death in 1815. This priceless drawing currently resides in the Gallerie dell'Accademia but is not usually on public exhibition.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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