Myth, Busted: Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man Might Have Been A Copycat Idea

New research suggests that the iconic illustration was actually a collaboration between da Vinci and a mysterious young Milanese architect-cum-resistance fighter.

We’re all familiar with the Vitrivuian Man, Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic image of a nude inscribed in both a circle and a square. Completed circa 1490, it’s the clearest, and most famous, representation of Renaissance thought linking sacred geometry to the human form.


There’s just one problem: Maybe da Vinci didn’t actually draw it.

At least not on his own, according to architectural historian Claudio Sgarbi. Profiled in Smithsonian magazine recently, Sgarbi suggests that the Vitruvian Man was likely collaboration between da Vinci and a mysterious young Milanese architect-cum-resistance fighter named Giacomo Andrea da Ferrara. The evidence: A copy of Ten Books on Architecture–Vitruvius’s classic treatise on architecture and the philosophical basis for the Vitruvian Man–which includes a drawing by da Ferrara of, yep, a nude inside a circle and a square.

Plenty of artists and architects had tried to rough out Vitruvius’s vision of the ideal man, but they didn’t do a very good job. This one was chillingly similar to da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. And it might’ve come first.

What little is known about Giacomo Andrea derives primarily from a remark made in On Divine Proportion (1498), by Luca Pacioli, who described him as both a dear friend of Leonardo’s and an expert on Vitruvius. Leonardo himself records in his notes having had dinner with Giacomo Andrea in 1490, the year Leonardo is thought to have drawn Vitruvian Man. And elsewhere Leonardo mentions ‘Giacomo Andrea’s Vitruvius’—a direct reference, Sgarbi believes, to the Ferrara manuscript. ‘Everything started to fit perfectly, like in a puzzle,’ he told me.

Sgarbi reasons that the pair shared notes, and thus was born the Vitruvian Man that today hangs on the wall of every science classroom in America. So why hasn’t da Ferrara gotten more credit? One possible explanation is that in 1500, he was captured defending Milan against French occupation and hanged before he ever got a chance to consign his name to posterity. Da Vinci, meanwhile, fled after cozying up to the French and lived 20 more years. Moral of the story: The suck-ups always win in the end.

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About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.