Revisiting Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man

Have Human Proportions Changed in 500 Years?

It was just a sketch, made more than 500 years ago. Leonardo da Vinci never intended for anyone to see it. He made it only to satisfy his own curiosity about human proportions. But today the Vitruvian Man is one of da Vinci’s best known works. A work of both math and art, it ranks among the most important of the Renaissance.

On top of all that, a new paper in JAMA tells us that Vitruvian Man offers important evidence about the enduring nature of human proportions. Because more than 500 years later, the anatomical proportions of Vitruvian Man are almost indistinguishable from the proportions of male and female Air Force recruits.

Sketchbook Versus Digital Body Scans

Diana Thomas and colleagues tapped into a database of digital body scans of new Air Force recruits. In all, they had data for 63,263 men and 1,385 women. These scans were for sizing uniforms. But they offer an outstanding source of data on anatomical proportions of healthy young men and women.

From that data, they compared seven anatomical proportions da Vinci documented in his notes. Those measures were head height, arm span, groin height, shoulder width, breast to crown, knee height, and thigh length. Thomas et al considered each of these in proportion to height. They found close agreement in both men and women to the proportions da Vinci documented. Thomas remarked:

This was both fascinating and surprising. The deeper we looked at human proportions in this study, the more one basic fact stood out. We are not that different. Men and women are very similar. The subjects da Vinci studied 500 years ago are strikingly similar to the proportions of young men and women today.

Differences and Similarities

Especially right now, differences attract our attention. Human diversity enriches our lives and the communities where we live. We can be better because of our differences, but only if they don’t draw us into stupid conflicts and bad behavior. Perhaps this reminder that we are not so different – even after 500 years of human history – can be useful today.

Click here for the paper, here and here for further reporting on it.

Revisiting Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, illustration from Thomas et al, JAMA doi:10.1001/jama.2020.3501

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June 10, 2020

One Response to “Have Human Proportions Changed in 500 Years?”

  1. June 10, 2020 at 1:51 pm, Mary-jo said:

    This is just my POV, but, whenever I view paintings and sculptures from Europe, bodies DO seem larger than say, after both World Wars — both men and women and even, children. Certainly, after Twiggy came on the scene, thinner women became more the vogue.