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Friday, 15 September 2017


Vitruvian Man, by Leonardo da Vinci
From the 'Epilogue' of Toby Lester's Da Vinci's Ghost (2012)

"Are you ready?"

Upstairs at the Gallerie dell'Accademia, in Venice, Dr Annalisa Perissa Torrini looked over at me as I finished tugging on my tattered white cotton gloves. We were standing at the display table, about to open the folder containing Vitruvian Man. A few others working in the area had quietly gathered round, eager for a viewing themselves.

Nobody knows what Leonardo did with the picture after he drew it. He never had it printed; he made no sketches or mention of it in his notebooks; and not a single allusion to it has ever turned up in the writings of his contemporaries. Illustrated editions of Vitruvius did begin to appear in the early decades of the sixteenth century, including one published during Leonardo's lifetime, but the relatively crude renderings of Vitruvian Man they contained clearly did not derive from his model. Only one direct reference to the picture survives from the whole of sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: a cursory description recorded in passing in 1590 by an obscure Milanese theorist of art. The first copy didn't appear in print until 1784. 

All of which brings a certain irony to the fore. Today Vitruvian Man has become one of the best-known and most frequently reproduced images in the world. But in Leonardo's time, and indeed for centuries afterwards, the drawing remained almost entirely unseen and unknown.

What little is known about its early history is this. When Leonardo died, in 1519, he bequeathed all of his notebooks and drawings, Vitruvian Man presumably among them, to his favourite pupil and assistant, the Milanese painter Francesco Melzi. Throughout his life, Melzi guarded the works as treasure and showed them off to visitors with great pride, but after his death, in 1570, his heirs allowed the collection to disperse. What happened to the drawing in the two centuries that followed is anybody's guess, but it seems to have stayed in Milan. That, at least, is where it finally reappeared in 1770, bound by a certain Venanzio de Pagave into a private folio of drawings by Leonardo, which Pagave recorded as having received as gifts from the archbishop of Milan. The folio then soon passed into the possession of the Milanese art historian Giuseppe Bossi, a lifelong champion of Leonardo who, in 1810, published one the earliest known copies of Vitruvian Man, along with the first accurate transcription of the accompanying text. After Bossi died, in 1815, the folio was acquired, and eventually disassembled, by a Venetian museum eager to expand its holdings: the Gallerie dell'Accademia.

Back of the Italian one-euro coin
Skylab II logo
Yet even then the picture remained almost completely out of view for more than another century. Only in 1956 did it at last begin to attract widespread public attention, when the famous British art historian Kenneth Clark reproduced it in a landmark work title The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. The work became a best seller, and for Vitruvian Man the results couldn't have been more dramatic. Released into the ecosystem of popular culture, the picture began reproducing rampantly, in forms both serious and lighthearted, and has been doing so ever since.

Celebrities, they say, always seem smaller when you meet them in person. That wasn't my experience with Vitruvian Man. When Dr Perissa Torrini finally laid the drawing out on the table, I found it larger than I'd expected, no doubt because reproductions so often shrink it down. Not only that, as I peered in close at the original I found myself arrested, as I never quite had been before, by the fixity of the figure's gaze. He looks straight ahead with eerie intensity, as if studying his own reflection. He's a vision of the human ideal, pinned forever in place like a butterfly to a museum wall, yet he's also a study in perpetual motion. He pushes one leg out to the side and pulls it back, then does the same with the other. Playing with the possibilities, trying to understand himself, he shape-shifts through a series of sixteen poses in all.

We spent close to an hour with the picture that morning, studying it from all sides, reviewing its history, peering at tiny details, discussing how and why it might have been drawn, holding it up to the light to see the pinpricks made by Leonardo's compass dividers. What struck me immediately about it was the quiet confidence of its line. Leonardo had drawn the figure with remarkable delicacy, but at the same time, digging grooves into the paper with his stylus, he'd practically etched it. Especially the hands and fingers, the feet and toes, and the outlines of the body: Leonardo had carved their contours right out of the page.

Hands and feet of the Vitruvian Man

The picture is reproduced so often today, and in so many different contexts, that it's hard not to think of it as ubiquitous, timeless, and inevitable. Looking at the original, however, I found myself drawn to the little things: the brittleness of the paper; the gently fading quality of the ink; the stray marks on the page; the occasional flourishes atop Leonardo's letters; the name "Leonardo da Vinci" written at the bottom of the page in an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century hand; the faint residue of glue on the back of the picture, where Venanzio de Pagave had pasted it down into his folio. It all made me reflect on the utter contingency of the image, which could so easily not have existed. What if the Greeks had defined beauty and the nature of the cosmos differently? What if Octavius hadn't decided to reinvent himself as Augustus? What if Vitruvius had never written the Ten Books, or if medieval scribes, flummoxed by the difficulty of the text, ha quit copying it? What if Christian theologians and mystics hadn't incorporated elements of Vitruvian Man into their worldview? What if Leonardo hadn't lived in Florence, studied with Verrocchio, or turned to the study of architecture and anatomy in Milan? As distractible as he was, what if he had just never quite gotten around to drawing the picture? Or what if it had simply disappeared after Francesco Melzi's death, like so many of Leonardo's other drawings?

One particular day more than five hundred years ago, I couldn't help thinking, Leonardo set other business aside, laid this particular sheet of paper down on a table somewhere – and then, after carefully dipping the nib of his pen into a pot of brown ink, began to draw Vitruvian Man. Perhaps he worked with Giacomo Andrea da Ferrara at his side. Perhaps he drew the picture after lodging with Francesco di Giorgio Martini in Pavia, or after discussing Vitruvius with Bramante in Milan. Perhaps he drew it to make sense of an age-old idea, to illustrate an ancient text, or to sum up the essence of the human analogy. Perhaps he flipped back and forth through his own notebooks as he worked, imagining that he'd include the picture in a treatise of his own. Perhaps he drew it to impress Ludovico Sforza, or perhaps he drew it only for himself, as a sort of metrological relief that he could consult privately while working on his paintings.
Perhaps he just drew it, without really knowing why.

Whatever the circumstances, he had much of his career still before him at that moment. He had yet to create his famous giant clay model of the Sforza horse, which would quickly win acclaim all over Italy as one of the greatest sculptures of all time – only to be reduced to rubble in 1499 by French soldiers celebrating their capture of Milan. He had yet to paint The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, the works for which today he is best known. He had yet to conduct the remarkable series of anatomical investigations that would make him a true pioneer in the history of both medicine and art, and he had yet to devise some of his most famous experiments and inventions. He still had countless plans to make, pictures to draw, notebook pages to fill.

Geometry and the Vitruvian Man
(Click to enlarge)
When he sat down to draw Vitruvian Man, in other words, the moment was ripe with potential. Already Leonardo had observed and studied the natural world more thoroughly than anybody before him, and now, by marrying his unique talents as a scientist and an artist, perhaps he felt he was on the verge of attaining what had eluded others for so long: the godlike ability to see and understand the nature of the world as a whole. That's the spirit, at once medieval and modern, and ultimately rooted in the quest for self-understanding, in which Leonardo would go on to live his life – and it's why, after his death, in 1519, his friend and final patron, King François I of France, eulogized him with the highest praise he could imagine. "I cannot resist repeating the words I heard the king say of him," a member of François's entourage wrote. "He said that he could never believe there was another man born in this world who knew as much as Leonardo, and not only on sculpture, painting, and architecture; and that he was a truly great philosopher."
"With what words, O writer," Leonardo wrote alongside one of his anatomical studies, "will you describe with similar perfection the entire configuration that the drawing here does?" He might as well have been describing Vitruvian Man. Brought into being more than half a millennium ago and born of concepts far older still, the picture contains whole lost worlds of information, ideas, stories, and patterns of thought. But look its subject directly in the eye, and you'll also see Leonardo da Vinci, staring out at you from the page. The man himself died centuries ago, buy his ghost – timeless, watchful, and restless – remains unmistakably, unforgettably alive.

  • See also VITRUVIAN MAN at