Image: fpra, courtesy Flickr
Leonardo da Vinci's drawing of a male figure perfectly inscribed in a circle and square, known as the "Vitruvian Man," illustrates what he believed to be a divine connection between the human form and the universe. Beloved for its beauty and symbolic power, it is one of the most famous images in the world. However, new research suggests that the work, which dates to 1490, may be a copy of an earlier drawing by Leonardo's friend.
Another illustration of a divinely proportioned man—the subject is Christ-like, but the setting is strikingly similar to Leonardo's—has been discovered in a forgotten manuscript in Ferrara, Italy. Both drawings are depictions of a passage written 1,500 years earlier by Vitruvius, an ancient Roman architect, in which he describes a man's body fitting perfectly inside a circle (the divine symbol) and inside a square (the earthly symbol). It was a geometric interpretation of the ancient belief that man is a "microcosm": a miniature embodiment of the whole universe. Leonardo and other scholars revived this vainglorious notion during the Italian Renaissance.
After decades of study, Claudio Sgarbi, an Italian architectural historian who discovered the lesser known illustration of the Vitruvian man in 1986, now believes it to be the work of Giacomo Andrea de Ferrara, a Renaissance architect, expert on Vitruvius, and close friend of Leonardo's. What's more, Sgarbi believes Giacomo Andrea probably drew his Vitruvian man first, though the two men are likely to have discussed their mutual efforts. Sgarbi will lay out his arguments in a volume of academic papers to be published this winter, Smithsonian Magazine reports.
The key arguments are as follows: In Leonardo's writings, he mentions "Giacomo Andrea's Vitruvius" — seemingly a direct reference to the illustrated Ferrara manuscript. Secondly, Leonardo had dinner with Giacomo Andrea in July 1490, the year in which both men are thought to have drawn their Vitruvian men. Experts believe Leonardo would have probed Giacomo Andrea's knowledge of Vitruvius when they met. And though both drawings interpret Vitruvius' words similarly, Leonardo's is perfectly executed, while Giacomo Andrea's is full of false starts and revisions, none of which would have been necessary if he had simply copied Leonardo's depiction, rather than the other way around. [Early Christian Lead Codices Now Called Fakes]
Other scholars find the arguments convincing.
"I find Sgarbi's argument exciting and very seductive, to say the least," said Indra McEwen, an architectural historian at Concordia University who has written extensively about the works of Vitruvius. "But [I] would opt for the view that Giacomo Andrea and Leonardo worked in tandem, rather than Leonardo basing his drawing on Andrea's."
Rather than competitors, the two Renaissance men were colleagues working together to bring a beautiful, ancient idea back to life. "Whose was the 'original' drawing is a non-question as far as I'm concerned. Much as it is a preoccupation of our own time, I don't think it would have been an issue in Leonardo's day," McEwen told Life's Little Mysteries.
Patrice Le Floch-Prigent, an anatomist at the University of Versailles in France who has analyzed the anatomical correctness of Leonardo's famous work, noted that, for both drawings, "the source is Vitruvius."