The Vitruvian Man: A Story Of Proportions, Divinity & Human Will

How Leonardo Da Vinci understood anatomy and philosophy.

You would probably recognize this drawing: a naked man with four arms and four legs, fitted into an overlapping circle and square. “The Vitruvian Man” was just another light sketch from the one and only Leonardo Da Vinci, taken from his vast collection of other ingenious, albeit less famous, light sketches.

Anatomical Inspiration

Vitruvian Man
The Vitruvian Man by Leonardo Da Vinci (≈1490) FACEBOOK @DaVinciVitruvianMan

Leonardo’s inspiration for the Vitruvian Man came from the notes left behind by a 1st-century-BC Roman architect and author, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio. Revisiting ideas explored by ancient thinkers was a key tenet of the Renaissance (14th-17th centuries,) of which Leonardo was a central figure. Especially fascinated by the study of proportions, Leonardo set about visualizing the proportions of the ideal human body that were originally proposed by Vitruvius.

Leonardo writes,

“If you open your legs so much as to decrease your height 1/14 and spread and raise your arms till your middle fingers touch the level of the top of your head you must know that the center of the outspread limbs will be in the navel and the space between the legs will be an equilateral triangle. The length of a man’s outspread arms is equal to his height.”

You can see these visualized in the Man: the spread legs and arms are circumscribed in the circle, while the straight legs and the horizontal set of arms correspond to the dimensions of the square.

Philosophical Inspiration

Leonardo received his schooling and later worked in the city of Florence, Italy, the heart of the Renaissance. Photo by Jeff Ackley on Unsplash

But why bother so much about how the “ideal body,” whatever that is, fits into a square and a circle? To understand this, there are mainly two philosophies underpinning the Man.

Neoplatonism was a school of thought that evolved from teachings by various ancient philosophers, one of which was Plato, and was thriving during the time of Leonardo. One of Neoplatonism’s core assumptions was the existence of a “highest principle which is unitary and singular.” This “highest principle” was the divine; the single definition of the Good.

Neoplatonists observed the Universe as resembling a hierarchy, which Plato and Aristotle called the “Great Chain of Being.” The Chain places God at the top, with angels, planets, and stars following. Animals and devils belong in the lower half of the Chain. Humans, according to Neoplatonissts, were special — our position marked the exact midpoint of the Chain. This was because, allegedly, humans possessed an immortal soul while being contained in a mortal body.

Springing out of Neoplatonism was a philosopher by the name of Pico della Mirandola. His most famous text, the “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” was so influential in philosophy at the time that it has been coined the “manifesto of the Renaissance.” Pico believed that, contrary to passively being placed in the middle of the Great Chain of Being, humans possessed a unique quality that allowed each individual to actively place themselves in any part of the chain. This unique quality was free will. Humans could, by their own choice, succumb to the behavior of animals or, conversely, use their brains and act morally.

In the Man, Leonardo manifests Pico’s philosophy. The circle in the drawing “reflects divine perfection or uncreated thought,” while the square “represents earthly creation or reality.” In essence, the Man is a visual argument for the human intellect. Humans have a profound gift for thought and reason, separating them from animals and even angels, who possess no intellectual ability.

Indeed, the drawing itself is a beautiful symbol of mathematical and philosophical intellect, drawn by none other than Leonardo, who was himself a skilled architect, mathematician, painter, sculptor, and engineer.

Mona Lisa
The Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci (1503), housed in the Louvre, remains one of the most iconic works by the Italian genius. Photo by Free Birds on Unsplash

A Postmodern Critique

We, as individuals conditioned in 21st century thought, can easily spot certain dangers of the philosophies mentioned above. The notion of an “ideal man” rings a few alarm bells straight away. What is the ideal, does it even exist, and should it exist?

The majority of people, it turns out, fail to fit the proportions assumed by Vitruvius and Leonardo. While Leonardo’s sketch of the Man has equal arm span and body height, modern anthropometry has shown that “span exceeds height in 59-78% of normal adult white men” (emphasis added.) Well, what if you aren’t normal, white, or male? The odds of possessing the Renaissance ideal body is even smaller.

While sexist connotations of such an idea are more than obvious (women naturally have different body proportions than men,) racist ones are also inescapable. For example, biologist Joel Allen observed that people in warmer climates tend to have longer limbs than those in colder climates. This is to regulate body temperature by releasing heat through a large surface area of skin. If the Vitruvian Man was modeled after a white man (which it most certain was,) it automatically rejects any hope for non-whites to meet its body measurements.

Gallerie dell'Accademia
The Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, where the Vitruvian Man is housed. Due to the fragility of the material, it is rarely displayed to the public. Credit: @gallerieaccademiavenezia

In reality, humanity (and all forms of nature) is defined by its diversity, not singularity. All efforts to formulate the “ideal” human will resort in prejudicial rejections of various demographics. Yet, think about how the Man is still so prevalent, centuries after Leonardo. Ideal height, skin color, waist size, buttocks shape, teeth, nose, nails. We can ridicule Renaissance men for fussing over their arm spans and “proportions.” But even today, the currency of beauty standards itself hasn’t gone away.

Regardless, we can take in the beauty of the Vitruvian Man for its own sake. Leonardo’s fusion of Neoplatonism and humanism is a puzzling, yet exquisitely balanced, contradiction: the respect for God on the one hand; on the other, the acknowledgment of inherent divinity within all humans. The Man is a man of boundless possibility; a man who possesses in himself the ability to be good, the choice to approach by himself the highest forms of goodness. That Man (or, let’s include, Woman) is someone that lives within us all — regardless of our proportions.

Lyon Nishizawa


Lyon is a lifelong traveler, who looks at each destination as her next classroom and playground. She is fascinated by the stories, music, and languages of the world. Her parents are Japanese, but she spent her childhood in multiple cultures and identifies as a third culture kid.

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