Leonardo’s Measure – The Genitals of Vitruvian Men

There seems to have been something of a genital fixation amongst commentators on Vitruvius’  in the 1490s and early 1500s. Vitruvius’ book on architecture was a favourite for many renaissance theorists, and his small passage about human proportion was revisited several times, notably by Leon Battista Alberti in his On Sculpture, by Francesco di Giorgio Martini in his treatise on architecture, and, most famously, by Leonardo da Vinci (some of these are collected together here; Leonardo’s version of the Vitruvian Man is to the right).

In a very tricky to interpret bit of text, Vitruvius attempts to create some rules to how each part of the human (for which read male) body relates to the rest (so the length of a foot is a sixth of the height of the entire man etc), and also says that” if a man lies on his back with his hands and feet outspread, and the centre of a circle is placed on his navel, his figure and toes will be touched by the circumference. Also a square will be found described within the figure, in the same way as a round figure is produced”.

Leonardo’s drawing is basically a response to Vitruvius’ ideas. He remeasured people himself and made a series of his own proportional drawings. His notes on proportions are written around the image (in mirror writing, of course).  He agrees with Vitruvius  that the stomach button could be the centre of a circle, but also argues that it is not the navel that’s the exact centre of the body, but the penis – or “virile member” to translate exactly (“Il membro virile nascie nel mezo dell’omo“). He’s shown this on the drawing with the horizontal line that goes across the base of the penis which is, indeed, half-way down the square.

Another commentator on Vitruvius, Cesare Cesariano,  translated the Latin text in a published edition of 1521. His illustration of a perfectly proportioned man has the belly button as the centre of both the circle and the square, but as if to make up for that, his figure has a prominent erection.

In yet another edition of Vitruvius from the early sixteenth century, a manuscript now in Ferrara by an anonymous  writer, his drawing of the canon of proportions is  illustrated by a man who also seems to have an erect penis (unless I’m seeing things) – the illustration is to the right.

I have a few ideas why this should be, and am currently writing them into a chapter on life drawing, proportion, and the perfect body. I’m still puzzling over this a little bit though, and wonder how Cesariano’s original audience may have reacted to this image?

About jillburke

I'm Professor of Renaissance Visual and Material Cultures, in the School of History of Art at the University of Edinburgh. I'm currently writing a book called How to Be A Renaissance Woman, about make up, body care and hygiene in the sixteenth century. My last book, on the Italian Renaissance Nude (Yale University Press) was out in 2018, and I was also involved in the exhibition on The Renaissance Nude at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Royal Academy in London 2018-19. I have a research blog for putting out ideas and research more quickly than traditional publishing allows, and also to include thoughts, material and info that won't fit in an article or book.
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7 Responses to Leonardo’s Measure – The Genitals of Vitruvian Men

  1. Stephen says:

    And may I be the first to ask: What proportion of the Vitruvian man was penis? Did artists and scholars worry about this (or only anxious male academics)?

    • jillburke says:

      Good question! I haven’t come across a discussion of the proportion of the penis. Cennino Cennini says it should be “of a size pleasing to women” (and that testicles should be “small, well-formed and fresh-looking”, which is nice. Interestingly these sentences are left out of the English translation) Other commentators like Pomponio Gaurico upbraids people for measuring the penis as part of the canon of proportions – so you’d assume that people were doing this, it’s just not recorded to my knowledge.

  2. My understanding, from lectures by Adrian Snodgrass, is that man is depicted as the generator of the Universe … copulating with the cosmos. The centre of man and of the Universe coincide with the centre of the circle and the square. Man “squares the circle,” somehow involving cosmos and earth, the cardinal directions, etc. Da Vinci of course depicts two centres, navel and groin, perhaps a more rational squaring of the circle. I’ve not read much on the theme beyond Vitruvius and contemporary architectural texts. The latter seem determined to project ideas of contemporary rationality into the renaissance mind set, which is after all alien in so many respects to post enlightenment thought … perhaps.

    • jillburke says:

      I think you’re right, there’s a lot in the idea of man as generator of the world. It fits in with a lot of obsessing over the creation myth that is marked around 1500. Some renaissance commentators explicitly say that the perfect body has to be prelapsarian, and that through finding mean proportions from a variety of men to form a perfect body, they are attempting to recapture the body before the Fall. There seems to be a marked interest in the first person being hermaphrodite as well, which is also interesting in terms of the renaissance aesthetic of the androgynous nude. I agree that in the literature there’s a real (frustrating) disconnect between a kind of non-historically contextualised interpretation and an attempt by renaissance historians to pull back the interpretation to something that would have made sense to contemporaries, who are saturated in a Christian worldview.

  3. Pingback: Circles and how to get out of them « Reflections on Digital Media & Culture

  4. Reblogged this on jasonrcouchtoo and commented:
    Kill has nailed a few here for us! Thanks Jill!

  5. Rohit Sanghi says:

    According to me is more about the basic natural urge/ desire of every human being to elevate himself from his present social dispensation, we cannot find a more perfect attribute to the hidden meaning than this drawing (The vitruvian Man) by the famous renaissance artist “Leonardo da’ vinci, according to my perception is of an “Ambitious man with high aspirations” who hopes to rise higher and expand wider from his present social dispensation.

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