Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man

When he was trying out, or breaking in
the latest pen or metal-pointed stylus,
Leonardo’s habit was to write
Tell me in the margin of a notebook.
He used his finest point in drawing this
imposing nude who turns up on the cover
of many a textbook on the Renaissance.
Standing within a square that overlaps
a circle, but is mostly framed within it,
with his four arms and four legs fully stretched
to reach the boundaries of both square and circle,
he’s bound to look, as Huckleberry Finn
remarked about another figure drawing,
a little “spidery.” The doubled limbs,
which might have made a lesser limner fumble,
were no hard lift for this one. Either pair
of legs, straight or spread-eagled, either pair
of arms, right-angled from his trunk or upraised,
is perfect in its ratio to the rest,
proportion being what it’s all about.
His navel (unlike Adam, he does have one)
marks the exact center of the circle,
his genitals the center of the square.
A naked man tailored to his environs,
a man of perfect mold, encompassed by
ruler-and-compass lines that do not lie—
and this, we understand, is meant to be
a glyph of human-cosmic harmony. . . .

The square is grounded while the circle seems
poised to ascend like a hot air balloon
while never managing to elude the touch
of the man’s feet and fingertips—a touch
which feels its limit but which cannot grasp it.
There are some things beyond our own reach here.
Is this an image, say, of aspiration?
Or tantalization? Is Vitruvian Man
master or captive of geometry?

The outspread muscles’ fine, incisive lines
are confidently governed by the artist’s
occasional forays at dissecting corpses,
as dexterous, one imagines, with a blade
as with the metal point he used to draw this.
Just one more facet of a lifelong, ardent
unleashing of his curiosity,
piercing the borderlines of art and science.

Speaking of curiosity, why is it
so little has been said about the face
of this protagonist who, one might think,
should prize the perfect fit of his surroundings?
Look for a smile of dominance or triumph,
and what you find is manifest ill temper
glaring from under an unruly mane.
He looks, in fact, like Thomas Jefferson
having a bad day. Almost as if
his eyes fixing on ours divine our question:
This hinge of history that haunts a gazer,
this mighty stab at putting Man (any man)
at the center of this bleeding world of ours—
how well has that been working out for us
throughout five centuries and counting? Tell me.

Robert B. Shaw

Robert B. Shaw retired from Mount Holyoke College, where he was the Emily Dickinson Professor of English, in 2016. He is the author of Blank Verse: A Guide to Its History and Use (Ohio University Press), and of seven volumes of poetry, the latest of which is A Late Spring, and After (Pinyon Publishing). An ample collection of recent and earlier work, What Remains to Be Said: New and Selected Poems, is scheduled for publication by Pinyon in April, 2022.

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Author: Robert B. Shaw

Robert B. Shaw retired from Mount Holyoke College, where he was the Emily Dickinson Professor of English, in 2016. He is the author of Blank Verse: A Guide to Its History and Use (Ohio University Press), and of seven volumes of poetry, the latest of which is A Late Spring, and After (Pinyon Publishing). An ample collection of recent and earlier work, What Remains to Be Said: New and Selected Poems, is scheduled for publication by Pinyon in April, 2022.