The human body by Vitruvius

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Leonardo Da Vinci

The human body by Vitruvius

Gallerie dell'Accademia di Venezia
Artwork's Details

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.

Bibliografia essenziale:

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);



Author's Details

Leonardo was born in Vinci in 1452. He was born out of wedlock to notary Ser Piero di Vinci who brought him to Florence in 1469 to give him an artistic education. In 1472 he enrolled to the school of Compagnia dei Pittori and attended Andrea del Verrocchio’s workshop, participating also in the anatomical research with Antonio and Piero Pollaiolo.

In 1482 Leonardo moved to Milan to serve at the court of Ludovico il Moro. He introduced himself as a musician, painter, sculptor, engineer and architect. He painted several works in the court of Moro, among them the Lady with an Ermine and he worked on the equestrian monument for Francesco Sforza. He was a set designer for various court celebrations and studied hydraulic and military engineering. He also devoted himself to physical and natural sciences, as shown in many of his drawings. His most famous work of this period was the Last Supper in Santa Maria delle Grazie (1495 – 1498) where he experimented with tempera on plaster technique instead of the traditional fresco. This resulted in poor state of conservation, which Vasari already mentions in the mid-16th century.

Ludovico il Moro was defeated by the French in 1500 and Leonardo set off to Venice with his friend, mathematician Luca Pacioli and his student Salai. Then he went to Mantua as a guest of Isabella d’Este and painted her portrait. In the same year he returned to Florence, where he painted Madonna and Child with St. Anne (Louvre, cartoon at the National Gallery of London) and the cartoon for the Battle of Anghiari (1504-1505) for the Salone dei Cinquecento in Palazzo Vecchio. He was commissioned by the Gonfaloniere of the Florentine Republic, Pier Soderini, who had also commissioned Michelangelo, who was working with the Battle of Cascina. Leonardo experimented with ancient encaustic technique, which turned out to be unsuccessful. Therefore, the project was not completed and today only some drawings have remained of the lost cartoon, such as the Tavola Doria.

Leonardo traveled to Urbino, Pesaro, Rimini and Cesenatico where he continued to study hydraulics, cartography and fortifications, but in 1505 he returned to Milan. He made several trips between Lombardy, Florence and Rome and continued his science research, but he was never commissioned by the Vatican, which favored the works of Raphael and Michelangelo.

Disappointed Leonardo left Italy in 1517 to take refuge in the castle of Cloux, near Amboise in France, under the protection of Francis I, who gave him an annual pension. He brought numerous paintings with him, like Mona Lisa, which he had painted in Florence in 1503. In France he continued his anatomical and scientific studies of which he left many drawings.

Leonardo died in 1519.


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Leonardo Da Vinci
Museum's Details

The Accademia of Venice was founded in 1750 and the opening of the Gallerie dell’Accademia was linked to it with primarily educational purpose: in 1803 a decree established the need to adjoin a gallery next to the school that was used by the students who studied painting and sculpting. In 1817 the gallery was opened also to the public. The gallery is located in the area of Dorsoduro, down by the Accademia bridge, in a complex including the church of Santa Maria della Carità, the Canonici Lateranensi convent and the Scuola Grande of Santa Maria della Carità, all situated in a single floor, divided into twenty-fours and covering 5537 square meters.

The first section of the collection includes the Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple and the Pietà by Titian (1538) and the Triptych of the Madonna della Carità by Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d’Alemagna (1480). The collection also includes essays by the students of the academy and a collection of plaster casts (hence the plural name, gallerie) which were put on display in the exhibition with success in 1817. The collection was enriched with the paintings brought from defeated France and with the masterpieces that were left to the museum by great collectors. However, the paintings were always linked to the Venetian culture and this feature was tried to overcome for the whole 20th century. Among these works was the legacy of Felicita Reiner (in 1833, but only formalized in 1850), which included masterpieces such as Piero della Francesca’s St. Jerome, Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Child and Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene. The legacy of Girolamo Contarini (1838) included 180 works, among them Madonna of the Small Trees and the Four Allegories by Bellini, and six paintings by Pietro Longhi.

The emperor Franz Joseph grew the collection with Nicolò di Pietro’s Madonna and Mantegna’s St. George, Memling’s Portrait of a Young Man and Giorgione’s Old Woman. The gallery was radically reorganized in 1895 by the director Giulio Cantalamessa. He excluded all the 19th century artists and for the first time the exhibition was organized chronologically. He coordinated the cycles of the School of St. Ursula by Vittore Carpaccio and the School of St. John the Evangelist by Cima da Conegliano, previously divided in various locations. Under the direction of Gino Fogolari (1905) the museum acquired other fundamental masterpieces, such as the Tempest by Giorgione and the Crucifixion by Luca Giordano and the Feast at the House of Simon by Bernardo Strozzi.

In the post-war period the museum performed various changes, for example Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin, which was supposed to be placed in a specially designed room, was returned to the Frari church in Venice instead. The 19th century works that were already excluded from the exhibition were sent to the deposit at the museum of Modern Art in Ca’ Pesaro and the foreign art in the Galleria Giorgio Franchetti in Ca’ d’Oro. In the 1940s’ Vittorio Moschini and Carlo Scarpa wanted to perform a modern reorganization of the museum, including the 19th century salons, but which resulted quite impractical in the end. In these years Francesco Guardi’s Fire in the Oil Depot of San Marcuola and Montagna’s St. Peter and Donor became part of the collection.

In 1987 director Sciré decided to increase the exhibition space opening the gallery on the fourth floor with the graphic collection and a new deposit was opened on the top floor of the Palladio building. In the same year the collection was enriched with two cherubs and two allegorical figures representing Justice and Patience, taken from Giorgio Vasari’s ceiling in a room of Palazzo Corner on the Grand Canal. Between 2001-2003 the gallery was renovated expanding the exhibition areas and adding modern lightning in the rooms.