August 2020


Eye on Art
The geometry of the human body:
A look at the “Vitruvian Man”

by Vincent deLuise, MD

Vitruvian Man
(Homo Vitruvianus)
Leonardo da Vinci
(1452–1519) c. 1490
Galleria dell'Accademia, Venezia

Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic pen and ink drawing of the “Vitruvian Man,” also known as the Canon of Proportions, is an illustration from around 1490, drawn for an Italian edition of a book on architecture written by the ancient Roman civil engineer Marcus Vitruvius titled De Architectura.
What makes Leonardo’s drawing so fascinating to physicians is its realism and accuracy, as well its synthesis of mathematics and art, which was so important in the Renaissance. The drawing also demonstrates Leonardo’s deep understanding of proportion, an aspect of his many attempts to relate the human body to nature.1,2
Leonardo believed the workings of the human body were analogous to the workings of the universe. “Leonardo envisaged the great picture chart of the human body he had produced through his anatomical drawings and ‘Vitruvian Man’ as a cosmografia del minor mondo (‘cosmography of the microcosm’).”1
Leonardo also tells us in his mirror writing notes that “Vitruvius, the architect says in his work on architecture that the measurements of the human body are distributed by Nature as follows: that 4 fingers make 1 palm, 4 palms make 1 foot, 6 palms make 1 cubit; 4 cubits make a man’s height. And 4 cubits make one pace and 24 palms make a man; and these measures he used in his buildings. If you open your legs 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 centre of your 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.”3
Many artists attempted to craft a drawing that would satisfy Vitruvius’ claim that a human could fit into both a circle and a square. Leonardo was thus attempting to create a geometric proof of the “squaring of the circle,” which is impossible. He came very close, however.


1. Heydenreich, Ludwig Heinrich. Leonardo da Vinci. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2017.
2. Isaacson, Walter. Leonardo da Vinci. New York. Simon and Schuster. 2017.
3. da Vinci, Leonardo. The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, Volume 1.

In this column, “Eye on Art,” Vincent deLuise, MD, explores the intersection of medicine and art.



The geometry of the human body: A look at the “Vitruvian Man” The geometry of the human body: A look at the “Vitruvian Man”
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