The Inspiration Behind Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man

A look at the classic drawing stripped down to its essence

Walter Isaacson

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Sketch of Leonardo da Vinci. Photo: Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, born around 80 BC, served in the Roman army under Caesar and specialized in the design and construction of artillery machines. His duties took him to what are now Spain and France and as far away as North Africa. Vitruvius later became an architect and worked on a temple, no longer in existence, in the town of Fano in Italy. His most important work was literary, the only surviving book on architecture from classical antiquity: De Architectura, known today as The Ten Books on Architecture.

For many dark centuries, Vitruvius’s work had been forgotten, but in the early 1400s it was one of the many pieces of classical writing, including Lucretius’s epic poem On the Nature of Things and Cicero’s orations, that were rediscovered and collected by the pioneering Italian humanist Poggio Bracciolini. At a monastery in Switzerland, Poggio found an eighth-century copy of Vitruvius’s opus, and he sent it back to Florence. There it became part of the firmament of rediscovered classical works that birthed the Renaissance. Brunelleschi used it as a reference when he traveled to Rome as a young man to measure and study the ruins of classical buildings, and Alberti quoted it extensively in his treatise on architecture…

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Walter Isaacson

CEO of the Aspen Institute. Author of The Innovators & bios of Steve Jobs, Einstein, Ben Franklin, and Henry Kissinger. Former editor of Time, CEO of CNN