Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, born around 80 BC, served under the Roman emperor Julius Caesar as designer and creator of his army’s artillery machines. Later Vitruvius became an architect and worked on a temple in Italy, the temple didn’t survive to the the present, but Vitruvius’s most important literary work, De Architectura, known as The Ten Books on Architecture, did.
Vitruvius’s work was especially appealing to Leonardo because it embodied the relationship between the microcosm of man and the macrocosm of the universe. This expression went back to Plato’s times and even further back to the ancient wisdom. It was a wisdom that examined man’s situation in the greater cosmic order.
As Leonardo studied Vitruvius’s science of natural proportion, he famously wrote, “The ancients called man a lesser world, and certainly the use of this name is well bestowed, because his body is an analog for the world.”
In other words, man is the model of the world and the world is the model of man. But how can this be?
Conventional wisdom holds that this world is boundlessly vast, while the human body is less than a speck of dust within it. But to settle on this is to fail to recognize that perception of big vs small is exactly that -perception.
Perception does not give us the true nature of things.
The faculty of perception predicates on the construct of the molecular eye reflecting images through the optic nerve to the molecular receptor in the back of our brains informing us of the molecular existence of reality. That is to say, we are only able to observe reality arising out of the layer of molecules. Yet is not the layers of molecules itself made up of more microscopic layers? Layers of atoms, electrons, nuclei, quarks and neutrinos? Going down even further beyond the modern science’s framework are there not countless of layers of particles stretching into the extremely infinite microcosm?
Are not the planets themselves a layer of particles? If we zoom out far back enough, do not the galaxies themselves appear as one more layer of particles comprising the great cosmic firmament?
Where is there any big and small? Aren’t concepts of big and small fundamentally flawed as they are affixed on the construct of relativity between man and universe based on limited perception within the one layers of the molecules? If we were to stand on the surface of an atom, would not the molecules themselves appear as planets in our skies, wouldn’t the dimension between the atoms and molecules in itself appear as a boundless universe? In the face of this, how much truth is there in asserting that the universe is actually ‘bigger’ than the human body? It may or it may not be. What is more likely is that they are one and the same, unified by the system upon which existence predicates.
This leads to an incredibly profound question: What relationship does the universe and the human body have with each other?
What does Leonardo mean in his claim that, “Man is the model of the world.”?
Vitruvius writes, “If nature has composed the human body so that in its proportions the separate individual elements answer to the total form, then the Ancients seem to have had reason to decide that bringing their creations to full completion likewise required a correspondence between the measure of individual elements and the appearance of the work as a whole.”
This is to say that if you slice out a piece of anything within existence, the information contained in that piece would be a model of the structure of existence that it was sliced out of.
Vitruvius had detailed the human proportions in reference to basic architecture defined by a simple square and circle. He did this in the revelation that the model of the human body is the most sublimate form of existence, and more primarily, that it is the form of existence itself:
In a temple there ought to be harmony in the symmetrical relations of the different parts to the whole. In the human body, the central point is the navel. If a man is placed flat on his back, with his hands and feet extended, and a compass centered at his navel, his fingers and toes will touch the circumference of a circle thereby described. And just as the human body yields a circular outline, so too a square may be found from it. For if we measure the distance from the soles of the feet to the top of the head, and then apply that measure to the outstretched arms, the breadth will be found to be the same as the height, as in the case of a perfect square.
It was this description by Vitruvius that would inspire Leonardo da Vinci’s to create The Vitruvian Man 1500 years later.
Leonardo knew what he was doing. His sketch was meticulous as it was deeply premeditated. His lines are not sketchy but instead, da Vinci dug hard with his stylus, carving confidently into the page. He used delicate lines careful shading to create a body of remarkable beauty. It’s a masterpiece that weaves together the human and the divine.
It depicts a man. But equal to the man it depicts the grand Order of the universe. It conveys the meaning of existence within the sublimate structure of the human consciousness. It celebrates a rationality, truth, humanism that lies at the intersection between man and divinity.