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The Untold Story of the World’s Most Famous Drawing

Toby Lester observes the legacy of Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic Vitruvian Man

The catchpenny title is misleading: there are no Templars in this book, no conspiracies, and only one execution. The drawing − dimly reproduced on the cover − is Leonardo’s famous (yes, arguably ‘most famous’) one, that of a naked man in both a square and a circle.

As it is very delicate, it is kept locked up (and rarely shown) in the accademia Gallery in Venice, but has been interminably emulated, caricatured, mangled and − as often − just reproduced. You may remember a version of it plastered all around London to advertise an employment agency called Manpower (who seem to have abandoned the logo when they went on-line), and you may well have handled it on the obverse of the troubled one-euro coin.

Its history has often been told: Leonardo bequeathed it (with many others) to his disciple francesco Melzi, whose heirs then sold it on to Cardinal Cesare Monti, and his heirs in turn to the painter-connoisseur, Giuseppe bossi. bossi published a study of it, with some other Leonardo anatomical drawings, all of which he engraved in 1811; and subsequent to his death in 1815 the drawing was bought by the accademia in Venice.

What it is ‘about’ is also quite clear from Leonardo’s notes which were written in his usual mirror-writing above and below the image. ‘Vitruvius the architect,’ he begins, ‘says that the measurements of the human body are distributed by nature as follows … and these measurements he used in his buildings.’

This passage from book III is one of the most commonly illustrated in the many editions of his treatise. Leonardo makes all sorts of variants on the ancient formula; moreover, while Vitruvius has his square man standing and the circular one lying supine (so you could draw a circle centred on his navel),

Leonardo has them both standing in the one figure; and while Vitruvius’ man is famously six-foot high, Leonardo’s has a more delicate foot which goes seven times into his height. Now Leonardo was well-known to be graceful and good looking, and a small foot was a mark of elegance.

The man who looks you straight in the eye from the drawing may well be Leonardo himself, and these details and proportions have been studied by any number of scholars; moreover the accademia sheet is related to the manuscript on the geometry of Human Movement, of which various fragmentary copies exist.

One copy known as the Codex Huygens is the most complete and famous, and though now in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New york, it was certainly in this country in the 17th and 18th centuries; some drawings related to it were engraved by edward Cooper, probably the same Cooper who restored and mounted the Codex sheets for Constantine Huygens. He certainly thought they were by Leonardo.

So that part of the story has been told, often and in detail. What does give substance to Lester’s claim that he has a new story to tell is his incorporation of recent research: such as the Canadian scholar Indra Mcewen’s suggestion that the statue of augustus in armour found at Prima Porta in rome makes the emperor’s body a summation − and image − of his empire, and that of the Italian architect-historian Claudio Sgarbi’s identification of a wrongly-bound miscellany in ferrara as the first ever illustrated Vitruvius.

Inevitably, it has a man in the square in book III as well, which does bear a relation to the accademia drawing. The ferrara Vitruvius, generally considered to have been written in about 1490-1500, is now tentatively attributed to Giacomo andrea, Leonardo’s friend and drinking companion, whom the french commander had executed and quartered after the conquest of Milan for his loyalty to the deposed Duke, Lodovico Sforza. This is the execution I mentioned earlier.

What Lester sets out to show, however, is the way in which Leonardo − like Vitruvius before him, for that matter − instances his belief in the near-universal doctrine that man is an abbreviation of the world, mikro kosmos, tiny order, while the whole universe, makro kosmos is a great order, as aristotle put in his Physics.

The idea was a reference for many thinkers through antiquity and the Middle ages: one such was Hildegard von bingen, who set it out in her Book of Divine Works. Lester reproduces a magnificent illustration of the idea from a manuscript of her text, done in about 1200.

Hildegard was finally canonised in 1940, and her writings are published as part of the patrimony of the Latin church, while her songs, now translated into modern notation, have been recorded on several CDs. Hardly an ‘untold’ − or even forgotten − story, then. apart from Hildegard, Lester does not seem very interested in medieval thinking − or building, for that matter.

The report of Sgarbi’s recent research is one of Lester’s main claims to be telling an ‘untold’ story; Sgarbi first suggested that the ferrara manuscript could be by several hands, one of which may be Giacomo andrea’s, and that the key connection could be the ‘man in the square’.

In the ferrara manuscript and in Leonardo’s drawing, the face is one tenth the height of the figure, equal to the distance between the setting of the penis (which is the centre of the square) and the navel, which in turn is the centre of the circumscribed circle. Since the square and circle figures are not usually so associated, this really seems a telling detail.

So there is ‘an untold story’ in the end. Some details remain puzzling: the Venetian paper, the occasional dialect spellings in the text; Giacomo andrea was ferrarese and that may explain both. That a Vitruvius manuscript was connected with him we know from a stray note Leonardo makes to himself after the execution: ‘Meser Vicentio aliprando (once the exiled Duke Lodovico’s secretary) who lives near the Inn of the bear has Jacomo Andrea’s Vitruvius’.

Was that the ferrara manuscript? We can only suppose and/or hope.Toby Lester’s great virtue is that he does make it all very exciting. He writes with verve and conveys the sense − from the moment in the accademia when he is allowed to handle the Leonardo drawing wearing white cotton gloves and through all the many transformations of the microcosmic idea − that he is an enthusiastic, eager, informed guide.

For any novice he can provide the essential red thread to guide him or her through the convolutions of a neglected but crucial notion which underlies a great deal (perhaps all) thinking about architecture and much else besides.

Da Vinci’s Ghost

Author: Toby Lester

Publisher: Waterstones

Price: £36.49

Readers' comments (1)

  • According to my reading of McEwen, Vitruvius expounded this concept in words only. To quote "the Leonardo drawing is so familiar that there is a tendency to read the words of V. as a transcription of the images". there is no evidence that V himself ever made a drawing to accompany the passage. Also no references are made to appended "schema or forma" as he does elsewhere, and where drawings are agreed were included. So this ubiquitos image appeared 1500 years later with many other such images in various renaissance treatises, based on V.

    McEwen also states that V. lays his man flat on the ground, which intention would be more suited to measure and ratio. Whereas the V men of Renaissance are all standing!!

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