Rob Hardy on books


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Circles, Squares, and Humans Intersecting



Rob Hardy


You may not know the name "Vitruvian Man," but you know the name Leonardo da Vinci, and you know his drawing of the man, both standing and spread-eagled, contained within a circle and a square. Vitruvian Man is perhaps the world's most famous drawing, according to Toby Lester, author of Da Vinci's Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image (The Free Press). The drawing has been reproduced countless times (though Lester describes with wonder his own visit by special appointment to see the original at the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice). It has been parodied (picture Mickey Mouse, Homer Simpson, and Spongebob Squarepants as the figure). It was among the clues in The Da Vinci Code. The drawing caught on in modern times when Kenneth Clark included it in 1956 within his book The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. There is little risk that it will descend into obscurity again; the enigmatic figure stares at us with calm defiance, as if he is showing us everything and yet we will never completely understand. It is clear that Lester, who frequently must resort to "might have" or "surely did," has not uncovered all the mysteries, but the drawing makes deeper sense aided by his scholarship and his enthusiastic storytelling. The book succeeds as a portrait of Leonardo at a particular time, and as a tour of the surprising genealogy of the ideas within the deceptively simple drawing. 




You know Leonardo, but it's quite possible that you do not know Vitruvius. He was born about 70 BCE, and became an expert in military engineering. He was there at the time Caesar Augustus dedicated himself to rebuilding Rome, and in his retirement he wrote about the principles of architecture. He might not have had direct influence on the re-emergence of Rome itself, but his The Ten Books on Architecture was to prove influential through the ages. Vitruvius himself looked back four centuries to the work of the Greek sculptor Polyclitus, which he felt had the proportions that an ideal male figure ought to have. Vitruvius supposed that if you put the point of a compass on a man's navel (ouch), a circle around him would touch his fingers and toes outspread. The reason this was important to Vitruvius was that the harmony of such proportions could be instilled into the architecture he was proposing. Harmonious buildings were essential for unifying humans into societies, even empires, and buildings were only coherent if they conformed to human proportions and if they were the product of the rule and the compass, meaning the essential figures of squares and circles. The circle represented the order of the gods and the cosmos, and the square represented the order of the earthly and the secular. 




Vitruvius's lessons on architecture went underground after classical times, but medieval theology was to delight in ideas of the play of circles and squares representing the spiritual and the human. Man was in God's image and thus within man was found all the harmony of God's universe. In the twelfth century, Hildegard of Bingen saw visions, including one of a human figure, representing Adam, Christ, and all of humanity, within a circle that represented all of the cosmic order. Vitruvius's work may have been out of sight for most people, but it was preserved in monasteries such as the one over which Hildegard was abbess. In plates and drawings within the text, Lester presents us with elaborate geometries that take in the four humors, the zodiac, the planets, and more, many with the central human figure caught within the circles and squares. Significantly, in the works of classical, medieval, and renaissance times alike, the figure is never a woman. The Craftsman's Handbook of around 1400 by the artist Cennino Cennini sniffs that the body of a woman was not worth considering "for she does not have any set proportion." 




The fanciful medieval geometry would have been familiar to Leonardo, but he was, of course, more interested in the real world, that which could be seen and drawn and planned. There was a commission at stake for designing the cathedral dome in Milan, and he determined to win it. He was at a disadvantage; as a professional artist, no matter what his level of genius or his knowledge of a wide range of fields, Leonardo was regarded as a tradesman. Other men were better born and better schooled, while he had to scramble for all the knowledge and experience he could get. He taught himself Latin in order to read the architectural theories that drew upon Vitruvius; learning Latin seems to have been genuinely difficult for the genius. Vitruvius was a tough read even for the architect Leon Battista Alberti who wrote an update, his own Ten Books on Architecture in 1450. Leonardo would have been familiar with this work, and with the work of the engineer Francesco di Giorgio Martini, with whom he was friends. Vitruvius's was the only architectural treatise surviving from the classical period, but it had no illustrations. Leonardo owned Martini's Treatise on Architecture, Engineering, and the Art of War, which did have illustrations, including one that showed how human dimensions might be incorporated into church plans and the designs of columns. It also had a drawing of a Vitruvian Man, actually based on Vitruvius's ideas. Martini's version, however, was faulty. The center of the circle, where the compass point would go, is not at the navel but the genitals (ouch), and the model is in a relaxed pose, without arms at full extension, so the geometry is not exact. 




Leonardo drew his own version around 1490. The proportions of the man are perfect (and may have been a self-portrait). They could not have been if, like Martini, Leonardo had insisted that the center of the square and the center of the circle coincide. The navel is the center of the circle, and lower, the genitals are the center of the square, and the two figures overlap but do not coincide. Leonardo also took only some of his measurements from Vitruvius, and he altered them so as to fit his own concept. It isn't surprising; Leonardo used Vitruvius as a starting point, and unlike others, questioned the foundation and used his own experience to do things his own way.  




Lester incorporates into this tale many sidelights, but convincingly ties each one into the main narrative. Thus, there are descriptions of Roman cartography, Cicero's decree of God being "the architect of the world," Aristotelian empiricism, medieval world maps, the construction of Gothic cathedrals, the workspace characteristics of a Florentine workshop, the sources of European science, military engineering, and much more. The book has many illustrations showing graphically, as well as philosophically, how the concept grew that man is the measure of all things, and it shows how the idea is supremely demonstrated in Leonardo's drawing. Perhaps best of all, Lester has given a short, circumscribed, humane portrait of Leonardo himself, a striver who could not meet deadlines and could not keep a full-time job, a fellow who loved practical jokes and quips. He may have been smarter than any of us and a genius in many fields, but like the figure who looks out at us from within the diagrammed circle and square, he is one of us.  




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