The Perfect Man Da Vinci Sketch Is An Enduring Symbol

Posted: December 07, 1999

You've seen his face - not to mention his arms and legs - somewhere before.

Every Friday and Saturday night, that's him, spread-eagled, in the opening credits of CBS's "Now and Again" and NBC's "The Pretender." That's him, too, on the local news, dressing up the logo for the KYW (Channel 3) medical feature, "Eye on Health." Before he was on KYW, he was the health-beat poster boy for WTXF (Channel 29).

Trapped forever inside a circle and a square, he's all over the World Wide Web, helping to sell everything from athletic supporters to cell phones. If you look carefully, you can even see his classic outline in the Blue Cross logo.

More fabulous than Fabio, more in-your-face than Marky Mark (and more anatomically correct than a Ken doll), Leonardo da Vinci's 507-year-old Vitruvian Man has had the kind of career longevity younger models can only dream of.

But other than the fact that the width of his outstretched arms equals his height, what do we really know about him?

He's a square

A few fast facts:

He takes his name from Vitruvius, an architect in first-century Rome who theorized that a properly proportioned building should be based on the proportions of the human body. Although da Vinci was not the only artist to interpret Vitruvius' theory, his Vitruvian Man is the most famous.

He was drawn in 1492, the same year Columbus arrived in the New World.

The circle is centered on his navel, the square at the base of his penis. This, according to Maria Dellaputta Johnston, a doctoral candidate at Penn and da Vinci scholar, "is interpreted as the relationship between the macrocosm and the microcosm. The circle is the higher level and the square [represents] humanity, which is why it is centered on the penis."

No one knows for sure who posed for the sketch, but it's been suggested that it might have been a self-portrait. Da Vinci would have been 40 at the time. "I like to think that it could have been Leonardo," said Johnston, a fan of Vitruvian Man whose dissertation is a literary analysis of da Vinci's Codex Madrid, a sketchbook of some of his mechanical drawings.

The original is in the Galleries of the Accademia in Venice.

The text in the background is in the mirror-image writing that was a trademark of da Vinci, who was lefthanded.

He's a blank slate

Like most successful models, Vitruvian Man seems to say something a little different to everyone, making him a perfect symbol for everything from sci-fi television shows to medical equipment.

"Even if people do not know exactly what it is, there's a sense of what it represents," said Johnston, who said she's seen the image on everything from fliers for a psychic to T-shirts. She herself owns a sketch of a "little Vitruvian cat" she bought in Venice.

The original "is a beautiful human body. I believe humans are fairly self-centered and proud, and that conveys very powerfully what it is," she said.

Glenn Gordon Caron, creator of CBS's "Now and Again," which uses the da Vinci sketch in its title sequence, suggests the drawing's appeal lies both in its age and its timelessness.

"I think we're all fascinated by what it was like being a human being 500 years ago and the drawing suggests a level of intelligence and self-awareness that surprises us," he said. "You can't help but be in awe."

He's pre-Millennium Man

Jacob Trollback owns Trollback & Co., a New York-based computer-effects design firm that last year used Vitruvian Man in some special effects it did for a "Saturday Night Live" sketch about exercise equipment that attacks its owner. He suggests the figure's recent renaissance might be tied to the "overall New Age kind of awareness that ballooned in the late '90s."

"It has kind of become the symbol for not only physical but mental wholeness," Trollback said. "A man in a circle is pretty appealing."

He's Everyman

Da Vinci, his first employer, wasn't available for comment, but here's what others had to say about the V Man:

"I see it as an instruction manual. `This is man. This is how he's put together,'" said Caron, whose sci-fi romance "Now and Again" is about a man whose middle-aged body dies but whose brain is brought back in the form of a younger, stronger specimen.

"There's a cheeky joke in there, because our show is about someone who puts together a man," he said.

"We were really captured by not only the classic nature of it but the idea of it being an Everyman symbol," said Craig W. Van Sickle, co-creator, with Steven Long Mitchell, of NBC's "The Pretender," which uses a silhouette of Vitruvian Man in its opening credits.

"We consider our character an Everyman," Van Sickle said of the show's star, Jarod (Michael T. Weiss), who each week adopts a different persona.

"He's very much human," said Mitchell, "and that symbol captures that in every way."

Van Sickle acknowledged that the use of the sketch by "Now and Again" "rankles me a bit, but obviously it's a symbol that's out there."

Out there and maybe under your next drink: "I was in a store once buying coasters and they had [Vitruvian Man], so I bought some," Mitchell said. "My daughter thought they were selling `Pretender' coasters."

"This definitely bears some resemblance" to our logo, agreed "Blair Witch Project" filmmaker Dan Myrick, who nevertheless insisted the burning stick figure used to promote the film was not Vitruvian Man. "We've had more references to it being some sort of distorted pentagram," he said.

"It's kind of cool, really," said Myrick of the perceived resemblance. "With `Blair Witch,' we've gotten a lot of responses, but all kinds of responses. I think that that contemplation and leaving it up to you to decide what it means to you, the da Vinci picture does too."

"I think it says health," said Channel 3 station manager Joel Cheatwood, whose newscast last spring started using Vitruvian Man in the logo for "Eye on Health."

"It just seems that it's a symbol that represents almost total health and everything that might encompass," he said.

What Cheatwood liked about da Vinci's sketch: It's "retro."

"It seems like everything that is old becomes new again," he said.

He's, er, intact

Might Vitruvian Man's recent renaissance merely be a reflection of our society's increased comfort with the human body, particularly - thanks to Kenneth Starr and "Ally McBeal" - those with penises?

"I think people are far less sensitive to [displays of] human anatomy," agreed Cheatwood, who said that as far as he knew, the station had received no calls complaining about the image.

Penn's Johnston, who comes from a place called Udine, northeast of Venice, laughed at the suggestion.

"I think that's [been] a problem here," she suggested. "In Italy, it's less of an issue."

You can reach Ellen Gray by e-mail (, fax (215-854-5852) or mail (Daily News, Box 7788, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101).

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