The vitruvian man


* El hombre vitruviano

Since ancient times we have sought the ideal of a "perfect body". This philosophy has come to degenerate into racism and other human weeds. Surprisingly, one of the instances where these "perfect bodies" should appear, the Olympic Games, have shown that this concept probably has no reason to be.

The Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius (possibly Marcus Vitruvius Pollio) lived in times of Caesar Augustus in the first century B.C.E.. He wrote a private text called "Of Architecture", divided into 10 parts or "books" which are: Book I: General Principles; Book II: Materials and their use; Books III and IIII: The orders and their application to temples; Books V and VI: The public and private buildings; Book VII: The decorative add-ons; Book VIII: The waters; VIIII Book: Astronomy applied to the measurement of time; and Book X: The machines.

The manuscript circulated privately during the following centuries, being copied during the Middle Ages by the scribes of Charlemagne. Some 55 copies survived until the Renaissance, and were rediscovered by the Florentine humanist Poggio Bracciolini, who put them at the knowledge of the artists and thinkers of his time, interested in reviving the culture and the sciences of classical Greece and Rome.

To write "Of Architecture", Vitruvius was based on personal experiences but also copied many ancient Greek texts, now unfortunately lost. Its importance is that it is the only classical treatise of architectural theory that reached our days. It inspired the revival of Classical architecture in the Renaissance and continued to have influence well into the twentieth century.

Of particular note in our case are Books III and IIII: The orders and they application to temples. The word "orders" refers to the different styles of classical architecture, distinguished by the characteristics of their famous columns. The Greeks had three styles: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian, to which the Romans added two more architectural styles: Tuscan and Composite.

These architectural styles had clearly defined rules, the bases of which Vitruvius explains better than anyone in Chapter I of Book III:

"1) The planning of temples depends upon symmetry: and the methods of this architects must diligently learn. It arises from proportion (which in Greek is called analogy). Proportion consists in taking a fixed module, in each case, both for parts of the building and for the whole, whereby the method of symmetry is implemented. For without symmetry and proportion no temple can have a regular plan; that is, it must have an exact ratio based on the members of a finely molded human body."

"2) For Nature has planned the human body so that the face from the chin to the top of the forehead and the hairline is one tenth; and also the palm of a hand from the wrist to the top of the middle finger is the same amount; the head from chin to crown, an eighth; from the upper chest to the crown a quarter; a third of the height of the face is from the bottom of the chin to the lower edge of the nostrils; the nose from the bottom of the nostrils to the line between the eyebrows, the same amount; from that line to the hairline is the forehead which is given as one third. The foot is one sixth of the height of the body; the ulna is one fourth, the breast also a quarter. The other limbs also have their own proportionate measures. And using these, ancient painters and famous sculptors have attained great and unlimited distinction."

"3) In the same way the members of the temples should have the dimensions of their many parts responding adequately to the general sum of their total magnitude. Now, the navel is naturally at the exact center of the body. For if a man lies on his back with his hands and feet extended, and the center of a circle is placed on his navel, the fingers of his hands and his toes will be touched by the circumference. Also a square will be found described inside the figure, in the same manner as a round shape is produced. For if we measure from the sole of his foot to the top of the head, and apply this measure to the outstretched arms, the width is found to be equal to the height, just like the places that are converted into squares with a ruler."

"4) Therefore if Nature has planned the human body so that its members in their proportions correspond to the entire configuration, the ancients appear to have been correct in determining that in the execution of their works they should observe an exact adjustment of the several members to the general design of the plan. Therefore, from the moment that in all their works they have installed orders, they did so specially in building temples, whose excellences and faults usually last for generations."


Leonardo da Vinci came to the knowledge of the "Vitruvian proportions" apparently when he was an apprentice in the worshop of the great master Verrocchio, which at that time was the center of the intellectual currents of Florence. Maybe he noticed some work of Leone Alberti, who was one of the first who attempted to draw the description of Vitruvius about "the circle and square."

But Leonardo, who was not only an artist but also a scientist, realized that the square could not be inscribed within the circle, but slightly downward, which leads to the realization that the navel will only be in "the center of the circle" if the arms and legs are stretched as calculated by Leonardo, but in no other position. The square proves "the-width-is-equal-to-the-height" part of the "orders", and in this case the center gets pretty close to the center of gravity of the human body. So Leonardo, with this drawing that he made circa 1487, was one of the first persons to clearly state that things have two centers: the center of gravity and the center of figure, and in some cases both are in the same place but sometimes are not.


But beyond these technicalities, the "Vitruvian Man" drew attention to symmetry in Nature and its relationship with beauty and perfection. In 1810, Giuseppe Bossi wrote a treatise on the world-famous mural "The Last Supper" and how Leonardo used Vitruvian concepts to guide its remarkable geometry. A year later he published another treatise going deeper into the subject and dedicated it to the sculptor Antonio Canova, whose delicate works are the most famous exponents of the Neo-Classical movement.

But when making the transition from marble statues to bodies of flesh and blood this search for perfection degenerated into a pseudoscience called eugenics, or the pursuit of the perfect race. In a bizarre interpretation of what the ancient Greeks wanted, it is famous the incident at the Berlin Olympics of 1936 when Adolf Hitler apparently had refused to shake hands with Jesse Owens, who had just won 4 gold medals, because he was not from the "superior race". (Owens, however, complained of racism prevailing in his own country, United States, more than in Germany; in the end this story pales in comparison to what Hitler came to do later, of course.)


And it is from the Olympic Games (ironically, also invented by the Greeks) where we get many examples that there is not one unique type of "perfect" human body.

Sprinter Usain Bolt, who broke the record for 100 m and 200 m dashes and 4 x 100 m relay in Beijing 2008 and again the Olympic record for 100 m dash and the World record for 4 x 100 m relay in London 2012, has a taller and more muscular body than the average population, with 1,96 m and 86 kg. But the record for the 42 kilometers and 195 meters of the Marathon, where endurance matters more than explosions of force, belongs to Haile Gebrselassie, who with 1,65 m and 56 kg is clearly smaller than the average of human beings. Stephen Kiprotich, Olympic Gold medalist in London 2012, is a little taller but has the same weight, so he is even skinnier. Also are smaller Americans Shawn Johnson, who with 1,45 m and 41 kg won four medals in artistic gymnastics in Beijing 2008, and the individual all-around Gold medalist in London 2012, 1,50 m, 40 kg Gabrielle Douglas. A famous fact is that players of certain sports like basketball are very tall: China's Chen Nan, whose team reached the semifinals in Beijing 2008, is 1,97 m and 86 kg, on a par with the Olympic Gold medalist in London 2012, 1,96 m Sylvia Fowles from the U.S.A. team.

In some events the bodies are quite close to what photographers consider beautiful: Yelena Isinbaeva, who broke the world record in pole vault in Beijing 2008, is also an advertising model for a well-known electronics manufacturer, and Anna Chicherova, the high-jump Olympic champion at London 2012, has no problems in posing with skimpy outfits outside sport venues.


However, although the statistics suggest that there is a body type for each type of sport, the discussion of whether champions are born or are made is far from over. Fabiana de Oliveira, two-times Gold medalist with the Brazilian team in volleyball, in Beijing 2008 and London 2012, is 1,66 m, a datum reminiscent of American Liane Sato, whom with 1,62 m earned a bronze medal in this modality in Barcelona 1992 and was also a star in beach volleyball.

Other physical conditions do not prevent from participating (with high dignity) of the Olympics. In Beijing 2008, we had the examples of American Dara Torres, who won three silver medals in swimming at 41 years old, beating rivals that by the age difference she could had have them as their mother. Equestrian Hiroshi Hoketsu was still competing at age 71, 48 years after his first appearance in the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. He declared that his biggest motivation to try again in London 2012 is because he felt he was improving. Argentina's María Belén Dutto, a semifinalist in BMX cycling in Beijing 2008, is deaf, and South Africa's Natalie du Toit managed to qualify for open-water swimming to the same Olympics despite having a missing leg.

Thus, the true spirit of the modern Olympic Games appears not to be in "Citius, Altius, Fortius" ("Faster, Higher, Stronger") but rather in the respect and celebration for the enormously wide human diversity.

Aldo Loup.

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Originally published in ABC Color, on 24 August 2008. Graphic: The Man according to the Roman architect Vitruvius, as understood by Leonardo da Vinci. The famous drawing is in the pages of one of Leonardo's notebooks, from about the year 1487, metal stylet technique (tip of silver or lead), pen and ink, with touches of watercolor, on white paper of 344 mm X 245 mm; and it is stored in the Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts of Venice, Office of the Drawings and Printings, Catalog No. 228r. Via the exhibition "The Mind of Leonardo", Museo Galileo - Institute and Museum of the History of Science, Florence, 2006, photographic production coordinated by Franca Principe with the help of Sabina Bernacchini, Paola Scortecci and Susana Cimmino, image optimization by Andrea Braghiroli, digital image generation by Senza Filtro, Florence.