Monday, September 19, 2011

Vitruvian Man

Recently, when speculating upon whether the German mystic Hildegard von Bingen's manuscript illustration of Universal Man  is in any way related to the Italian artist Leonardo Da Vinci's well-known image of Vitruvian man, I found that Sir Thomas Browne once owned a book entitled L'Architettura di Vitruvio (Venice 1641) complete with a commentary by the Italian humanist Daniele Barbaro (1514-1570) [1]. But in fact its highly improbable that the writings of Vitruvius could have been re-discovered in Germany in the 12th century, the rediscovery of Vitruvius usually being credited to the Florentine humanist Poggio Bracciolini in 1414. It was Vitruvius who noted of the proportions of the human body that-

Just so the parts of Temples should correspond with each other, and with the whole. The navel is naturally placed in the centre of the human body, and, if in a man lying with his face upward, and his hands and feet extended, from his navel as the centre, a circle be described, it will touch his fingers and toes. It is not alone by a circle, that the human body is thus circumscribed, as may be seen by placing it within a square. For measuring from the feet to the crown of the head, and then across the arms fully extended, we find the latter measure equal to the former; so that lines at right angles to each other, enclosing the figure, will form a square. [2]

It's quite possible that Browne also once owned books by Italian Renaissance painters, including those of Da Vinci. The 1711 Sales Catalogue advertises Books of Sculpture and Painting with choice manuscripts for sale, but as the American scholar and editor J.S. Finch noted, no such books arrived at the auction-house having mysteriously disappeared. 

It's in Plato's philosophical discourse the Symposium that the idea of an original, androgynous, double-natured man can be found -

The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word "Androgynous" is only preserved as a term of reproach. In the second place, the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast. Now the sexes were three, and such as I have described them; because the sun, moon, and earth are three;-and the man was originally the child of the sun, the woman of the earth, and the man-woman of the moon, which is made up of sun and earth, and they were all round and moved round and round: like their parents.

while in Sir Thomas Browne's discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658) one reads-

Nor is the same observable only in some parts, but in the whole body of man, which upon the extension of arms and legges, doth make out a square, whose intersection is at the genitals. To omit the phantastical Quincunx, in Plato of the first Hermaphrodite or double man, united at the Loynes, which Jupiter after divided.

Plato's Original Man bears some resemblance to the Biblical account in Genesis in which God, taking a rib from Adam when asleep, forms a companion for him, naming her Eve. (Gen.2: 21-22)

Nevertheless an interesting  correpondence between the geometrical design of Hildegard's Universal Man and Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man is evident; while Sir Thomas Browne's own highly original interpretation of the Platonic archetypes can be detected throughout  The Garden of Cyrus

[1] 1711 Sales Catalogue page 39 no.18
[2]  Vitruvius - On Architecture Book 3, i, 3


-E- said...

ah, thanks for the very thorough answer to my question!

teegee said...

Even if any ancient Ms of Vitruvius was illustrated (and I know of none that has survived) or any Medieval Ms that the early Reniassance did not know of had survived (but they discovered what they could, and even though an Ottonian monastery / nunnery was as likely a place as any for illustrated Mss to have been preserved, and through her contacts available to Hildegarde of Bingen, I have never that I recall read of any mentioned. But it is far from unlikely that, even if only verbally (and as Leonardo discovered the verbal description is hard to realize in a strict and well informed drawing), both Hildegarde and many of her acquaintances, both in Religion and in the World, may well have been aware of Vitruvius's idea. It is unlikely that it was original with him or unfamiliar to architects and to theoreticians generally, both in Latin and in Greek texts and in professional lore. If I can I'll check for such indirect transmissions.

Laurie M. said...

Well, being generally unfamiliar Plato, I'm delighted! What a fantastic image, and yes, I too thought of the parallels with the Genesis description of man being divided into the sexes.