This famous drawing is one of the few full-length figures by Leonardo and it represents the human body by Vitruvius, as described in his text De Architectura, and in particular a man standing with his arms and legs wide open, perfectly adjusted in a circle and square (the writing above the drawing reads: “Vitruvius, the architect, says in his work on architecture that the measurements of the human body are distributed by Nature as follows that is that 4 fingers make 1 palm, and 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. (..)”) In the third book of De Architectura Vitruvius proposes a parallel between ideal architecture and human body. He explains that perfect proportions and symmetry can be achieved only through precise calculations and measurements, such as in “homo bene figuratus” where the individual human parts and the whole are proportionally related, which also applies to perfect architectonical work.
The high graphic precision of the drawing, which now is located in Venice, suggests that Leonardo was trying to prove Vitruvius’s calculations on the drawing itself. In fact, a closer analysis has shown very small points, which means that the drawing was made with pouncing technique. This shows that the composition was made as an illustration which would also explain the rich details and the accuracy of printed reproduction. The theory of the proportions of human body inside a circle and square was universally accepted during the Renaissance and it can be also found in Pliny’s Natural History.
The work is dated around 1490 and the subject is not one of its kind. There is a version divided in two; one with a man inside a circle and one inside a square, mentioned in Cesare Cesariano’s De Lucio Vitruvio in 1521 and in an edition of friar Giocondo in 1511 and the version inside a circle in Trattato di Architettura by Francesco di Giorgio (owned by Leonardo). The drawing came to Milan with Francesco Melzi and entered the collection of Cesare Monti. After various owners and collectors, the drawing was brought outside Lombardy and in 1807 it was bought by Bossi whose collection was then brought to Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.
Beltrami L., Documenti e memorie riguardanti la vita e le opere di Leonardo da Vinci in ordine cronologico, Milano 1919, pp. 3-17;
Panofsky E., The codex Huygens and Leonardo da Vinci’s art theory, London 1940, fig. 91;
Pedretti C., The cut-throat finger, in “Achademia Leonardo Vinci”, I, 1988, tav. 230, p. 159;
Nepi Scirè G., in Leonardo & Venezia, catalogo della mostra, Milano 1992, pp. 216-217;
Arasse D., Leonard de Vinci. Le rytmie du monde, Paris 1997, pp. 104-106;
Nepi Scirè G., in Da Leonardo a Canaletto. Disegni delle Gallerie dell’Accademia, Milano 1999, pp. 60-66 (con bibliografia precedente);