What does “Vitruvian” Mean Anyway?

What Does "Vitruvian" Mean Anyway?

What does "Vitruvian" Mean Anyway?

The name of our school is inspired by the work and legacy of Vitruvius, an ancient Roman architect who lived in the 1st century BC. Although little is known today about his life, his work has left a lasting impression on the world of art. His treatise De Architectura is the only complete work on architecture to survive from classical antiquity, and covers a surprising array of subjects. Mathematics, astronomy, meteorology and even medicine are all discussed at length alongside the expected descriptions of construction and building materials. The work reveals the vast scope of the Roman architect's sphere, where any matter concerning the relationship of human beings to their surroundings was considered relevant to the art.

Vitruvius had a particular interest in the proportions of the human body. In Book 3 of De Architectura, he sets down his canone - or system - for understanding human proportion, complete with precise measurements and elaborate geometrical relationships. Such knowledge was important to Vitruvius because in his view, architecture is essentially an imitation of nature. He believed that understanding the proportions of the body leads to a better grasp of desirable proportion in buildings.

Vitruvius' work on human proportion has sparked the interest of several artists through the centuries. Leonardo da Vinci famously illustrated the proportional canon in his drawing known simply as The Vitruvian Man. But there have been others. Fra Giovanni Giocondo, Cesare Ceaseriano, Francesco Giorgi, Albrecht Dürer, William Blake, and Le Corbusier have all investigated Vitruvius' ideas in their own work. Even The Simpsons has made a passing reference to the Vitruvian Man.

Why have the ideas of Vitruvius held such fascination for artists? We think the answer lies in the importance of proportion itself - in architecture and indeed in all of the arts. Vitruvius argued that the ideal relationship between buildings and human beings is a matter of proportion. But so is the relationship of one note to another in music, one ingredient to the rest in a recipe, or one color to the next in a painting. In fact, the very act of creating - of putting things together to make something new - is fundamentally an exercise in managing proportions. Every photographer, fashion designer, chef, choreographer or painter is concerned ultimately with striking an appropriate balance of parts to the whole. They are all, in the end, working with proportion.

At the Vitruvian Fine Art Studio, we concentrate on teaching drawing, painting, sculpture, and the anatomy of the figure. Yet many of the concepts we teach are really proportional issues. Line, shape, value, color, surface, angle, size and position are elements that function in artwork only in relation - or in proportion - to other things. Creating any work of art is an act of balancing those proportions. We named our school in acknowledgment of this basic truth, and of the man who recognized it first.

Early vitruvian man by Fra Giovanni Giocondo
Early vitruvian man by Fra Giovanni Giocondo


Early vitruvian man by Fra Giovanni Giocondo

From The Simpsons

Leonardo's Contribution

When Leonardo drew his illustration of the proportions of man, he was not completely faithful to Vitruvius' description. De Architectura 3.1.3 contains the architect's description the figure's relationship to the circle and the square. In this passage, Vitruvius implies that both shapes can encompass the figure equally and are each centered upon the navel - the "natural" middle-point of the body. But Leonardo recognized that this isn't true. The navel is the center of the body only when the legs are spread apart and the arms are elevated, creating a natural circumference with the navel at its hub. When the legs are brought together under the body, however, the level of the feet drops. This brings the apparent mid-point of the body somewhat lower, to the level of the genitals. Thus in the Da Vinci drawing, the circle and square enclosing the figure share a baseline, but the center of the circle is higher than the center of the square.

This may seem like a minor change, but it is extremlely significant given the important role that geometric shapes have played as signifiers in western art. The circle has been used to symbolize all that is heavenly: the sky, the cosmos and God. The center of the circle at the navel, umbilicus, can therefore be thought to represent creation. The square in art typically represents what is grounded and earthly, and at the center of Leonardo's square are the genitals - man's gift of procreation. With the circle and square so aligned, Leonardo beautifully and subtly suggests a kind of harmony in man's existence at the center of both creation and procreation.

Under this new interpretation of Vitruvian proportions, Leonardo's image has become much more than a literal illustration of a proportional canon. Over the centuries it has developed into a cultural icon adopted by various causes that Vitruvius never dreamed of. Examples include the embodiment of human health and wellness, the ideal of physical fitness, an icon for chiropractors and orthopedic products, and the personification of the Italian nation on Euro coins. Even Hollywood has adopted the image, which has served as a biological blueprint by Dr. Frankenstein (1994), as a logo for an international space agency in Contact (1994), and of course the Vitruvian Man is featured prominently in Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code.

Leonardo's vitruvian man

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