What is the historical and cultural significance of Leonardo da Vinci's drawing Vitruvian Man?

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One of the most important figures from the Renaissance period, Leonardo da Vinci was the archtype of the “Renaissance Man.”  A brilliant artist, scientist and visionary, da Vinci has also been categorized as a  prominent humanist figure in world history.  While much of his art was inspired by – or,...

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One of the most important figures from the Renaissance period, Leonardo da Vinci was the archtype of the “Renaissance Man.”  A brilliant artist, scientist and visionary, da Vinci has also been categorized as a  prominent humanist figure in world history.  While much of his art was inspired by – or, to be possibly more precise, was commissioned by – Christianity and the Catholic Church, he is also considered a major progenitor of the humanist movement that is usually associated with atheism.  Probably no work of da Vinci’s is more associated with humanism than his drawing “Vetruvian Man.”  The scientific precision of this famous drawing, particularly its proportionality, has impressed art critics and anatomists since its unveiling. 

Humanism, of course, is concerned with ethics and values and of the role of man in society.  The commitment to lead an ethical life irrespective of theological considerations is at the center of the humanist movement.  How a 15th Century drawing of a human male, arms extended, legs presented both together and spread within precise geometrical borders, came to embody the concept of humanism is a worthwhile question.  “Vetruvian Man” has been widely interpreted to illustrate da Vinci’s notion of man as a scientific being.  Named for the Roman engineer, architect and author Vesuvius, a historical figure who was an inspiration to da Vinci, “Vetruvian Man” pays homage to that ancient figure and his contributions to scientific advancement.  In fact, Vetruvius was an early representation of the notion of the “Renaissance Man.” 

There is no question based upon study of da Vinci’s notes that the pursuit of objective scientific reality was extremely important to him.  The precision with which he sketched “Vetruvian Man” was unlikely to be mere chance, given the artistic expression found in so many paintings of his era.  His fellow “Renaissance Man,” Michelangelo, was similarly dedicated to accurate representations of the human form deviating only in the service of the Church.  The scientific precision reflected in “Vetruvian Man” is considered a reflection of da Vinci’s commitment to ethics and values as represented in humanist thought. 

Leonardo da Vinci was an important Renaissance figure and father of the humanist movement.  “Vetruvian Man” was perhaps his most important contribution to the development of that movement, in addition to providing a depiction of man in conformity with the scientific precision he clearly valued. 

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