Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man

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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.