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Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

15 Things You Might Not Know About Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man

Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man has evolved over the last five centuries from a thoughtful sketch into the picture of health. But the history behind this sketch is as curious as its image is omnipresent.

1. LEONARDO NEVER INTENDED FOR VITRUVIAN MAN TO BE DISPLAYED. 

The sketch was discovered in one of the High Renaissance master's personal notebooks. The study was simply for the artist’s own edification, and when he completed it around 1490, he likely never expected it would be admired. Yet today Vitruvian Man is iconic and among the artist's best known works, along with The Last Supper and Mona Lisa.

2. IT’S ART MEETS SCIENCE. 

A true Renaissance man, Leonardo was not only a painter, sculptor, and writer, but also an inventor, architect, engineer, mathematician and amateur anatomist. This pen and ink drawing was his exploration of the theories about human proportions set forth by ancient Roman architect Vitruvius. In his treatise De Architectura, Vitruvius wrote, "For if a man be placed flat on his back, with his hands and feet extended, and a pair of compasses centered at his navel, the fingers and toes of his two hands and feet will touch the circumference of a circle described therefrom. And just as the human body yields a circular outline, so too a square figure may be found from it."

3. LEONARDO WAS NOT THE FIRST TO ATTEMPT TO ILLUSTRATE VITRUVIUS’S THEORIES. 

American scholar Toby Lester explained to NPR in a 2012 interview, "Especially in the 15th century, in the decades leading up to Leonardo's own time in drawing, a number of people begin to try to render that idea in visual form."

4. IT MAY HAVE BEEN PART OF A COLLABORATION.

In 2012, Italian architectural historian Claudio Sgarbi shared findings that he felt indicated Leonardo's study of proportion was sparked by a similar one done by his friend and fellow Vitruvius-enthusiast Giacomo Andrea de Ferrara, an architect of the time. There’s some debate about whether the pair worked in tandem, but even if this theory is incorrect, historians agree Leonardo perfected flaws in its execution where Giacomo failed, including the second set of arms and legs that allow for a more accurate depiction of Vitruvius’s writings.

5. THE CIRCLE AND THE SQUARE HAVE A GRANDER MEANING. 

In their mathematical explorations, Vitruvius and Leonardo were looking for not just the ratios of man but of all creation. In a notebook from 1492, Leonardo mused, "By the ancients man has been called the world in miniature; and certainly this name is well bestowed, because, inasmuch as man is composed of earth, water, air and fire, his body resembles that of the earth." In other words, man is a microcosm of the universe.

6. IT’S ONE OF A SERIES OF SKETCHES.

To improve his art and better understand how the world around him worked, Leonardo drew many people, marking off how their proportions fell.

7. VITRUVIAN MAN IS THE MALE IDEAL.

The identity of the model remains shrouded in mystery, but art historians believe Leonardo took some liberties in his drawing. This work was not a portrait as much as a diligent depiction of a perfect male form designed by math, not shaped by life.

8. IT COULD BE A SELF-PORTRAIT. 

Going off scant descriptions of the 15th century artist as a younger man, some art historians have suggested Leonardo himself is his Vitruvian Man model. As Lester told NPR: "He was described as being very finely built, strong, very beautiful with locks of hair that curled and went down to his shoulders. There are a couple of possible renderings of him, one that survives in a sculpture from Florence and another that's in a fresco from Milan, and they both look a bit like that figure as well," but he admitted there's no way to know "for sure."

9. VITRUVIAN MAN HAD A HERNIA.

That's the diagnosis that surgical lecturer Hutan Ashrafian made 521 years after the fact: An inguinal hernia. Ashrafian further theorized that such an issue could have killed this Vitruvian Man if Leonardo modeled the figure off of a cadaver, it was possibly the hernia that did him in.

10. YOU NEED THE SURROUNDING NOTES FOR THE FULL CONTEXT.

As the sketch originally appeared in a notebook, Vitruvian Man sat surrounded by handwritten notes regarding its observations about human proportion. Translated to English, they read in part: "Vitruvius, the architect, says in his work on architecture that the measurements of the human body are distributed by Nature as follows that is that 4 fingers make 1 palm, and 4 palms make 1 foot, 6 palms make 1 cubit; 4 cubits make a man's height. And 4 cubits make one pace and 24 palms make a man; and these measures he used in his buildings. If you open your legs so much as to decrease your height 1/14 and spread and raise your arms till your middle fingers touch the level of the top of your head you must know that the centre of the outspread limbs will be in the navel and the space between the legs will be an equilateral triangle. The length of a man's outspread arms is equal to his height."

11. THE BODY IS STRIPED WITH MEASUREMENT LINES.

Look at the man's chest, arms and face. Solid straight lines mark Leonardo's proportions, to which his notes refer. For instance, the ears/bottom of nose to the eyebrows make up a third of the face, while the bottom of the nose to the chin makes up the lowest third, and the eyebrows to the hairline make up the top.

12. IT HAS OTHER, LESS ESOTERIC NAMES. 

The sketch is also called Canon of Properties or Proportions of Man.

13. VITRUVIAN MAN STRIKES 16 POSES.

At first glance, you might only see two: Standing feet together, arms outstretched and standing feet apart arms lifted. But part of the genius of Leonardo's depiction is that the superimposed body allows for views of 16 combinations of these outstretched limbs.

14. IT HAS BEEN CO-OPTED FOR A POLITICAL MESSAGE. 

Reconnecting to Vitruvian Man's relation of man and nature, large-scale artist John Quigley used the familiar image to illustrate the aggressiveness of global warming. Pictures of ice melting may not move mercury for many, but by constructing Melting Vitruvian Man on a massive ice floe, Quigley was able to give the issue a new scale. Quigley's copper strip sketch measures four times the size of an Olympic swimming pool.

15. THE ORIGINAL SKETCH IS RARELY SEEN IN PUBLIC.

Recreations can be found far and wide, but the original is too fragile and important to be on permanent display. Vitruvian Man is typically kept under lock and key at the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice. An exhibition held in 2013 offered the first chance in 30 years to see Vitruvian Man. In its off time, the only way to view Leonardo's sensational sketch is to request special permission for a private session to the Office of Drawings and Prints.

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© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
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Animals
Boston's Museum of Fine Arts Hires Puppy to Sniff Out Art-Munching Bugs
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Some dogs are qualified to work at hospitals, fire departments, and airports, but one place you don’t normally see a pooch is in the halls of a fine art museum. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is changing that: As The Boston Globe reports, a young Weimaraner named Riley is the institution’s newest volunteer.

Even without a background in art restoration, Riley will be essential in maintaining the quality of the museum's masterpieces. His job is to sniff out the wood- and canvas-munching pests lurking in the museum’s collection. During the next few months, Riley will be trained to identify the scents of bugs that pose the biggest threat to the museum’s paintings and other artifacts. (Moths, termites, and beetles are some of the worst offenders.)

Some infestations can be spotted with the naked eye, but when that's impossible, the museum staff will rely on Riley to draw attention to the problem after inspecting an object. From there, staff members can examine the piece more closely and pinpoint the source before it spreads.

Riley is just one additional resource for the MFA’s existing pest control program. As far as the museum knows, it's rare for institutions facing similar problems to hire canine help. If the experiment is successful, bug-sniffing dogs may become a common sight in art museums around the world.

[h/t The Boston Globe]

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Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.
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History
Mütter Museum Showcases the Victorian Custom of Making Crafts From Human Hair
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

During the Victorian era, hair wasn’t simply for heads. People wove clipped locks into elaborate accessories, encased them in frames and lockets, and used them to make wreaths, paintings, and other items. "Woven Strands," a new exhibition at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, explores this historical practice by featuring dozens of intricate works culled from five private collections.

According to Emily Snedden Yates, special projects manager at the Mütter Museum, hair work—as it’s called today—was common in England and America between the 17th and early 20th centuries. The popularity of the practice peaked in the 19th century, thanks in part to Queen Victoria’s prolonged public mourning after her husband Prince Albert’s death in 1861. People in both the UK and U.S. responded to her grief, with the latter country also facing staggering death tolls from the Civil War.

With loss of life at the forefront of public consciousness, elaborate mourning customs developed in both nations, and hair work became part of the culture of bereavement. "[The 19th century was] such a sentimental age, and hair is about sentiment," exhibition co-curator Evan Michelson tells Mental Floss. That sentimental quality made hair work fit for both mourning practices as well as for romantic or familiar displays of fondness.

Palette work culled from the collection of Evan Michelson and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Palette work from the collection of Evan Michelson
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Most hair artworks were made by women, and created solely for the domestic sphere or as wearable trinkets. Women relied on multiple techniques to create these objects, fashioning wreaths with hair-wrapped bendable wires—a process called gimp work—and dissolving ground hair into pigments used to paint images of weeping willows, urns, and grave sites. Watch fobs, necklaces, and bracelets were woven using an approach called table work, which involved anchoring hair filaments with lead weights onto a table and using tools to twist them into intricate patterns through a hole in the furniture’s surface. Yet another technique, palette work, involved stenciled sheets of hair that were cut into various shapes and patterns.

Hair work remained popular until World War I, according to Michelson, who co-owns New York City's quirky Obscura Antiques and Oddities shop and organized "Woven Strands" along with 19th century decorative arts expert John Whitenight.

“Women hit the workforce, and death occurred on such a huge scale that it really swept away the old way of mourning and the old way of doing things,” Michelson says. By the early 20th century, tastes and aesthetics had also changed, with hair work beginning to be viewed “as something grandma had,” she explains.

The Mütter’s exhibition aside, people typically won’t see hair work in major museums. Being a craft primarily performed by women at home, hair works were usually passed down in families and often viewed as worthless from a financial and artistic perspective.

“A lot of hair work was discarded,” Michelson says. Many owners repurposed the shadowbox frames often used to display hair work by removing and tossing the artworks within. Works stored in basements and attics also frequently succumbed to water damage and insects. Antique dealers today typically only see hair jewelry, which often featured semi-precious materials or was encased in a protective layer.

Sepia dissolved hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Sepia dissolved hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Yet examples of hair wreaths, palette work, and other delicate heirlooms do occasionally surface. They’re prized by a small group of avid collectors, even though other connoisseurs can be grossed out by them.

“People have this visceral reaction to it,” Michelson says. “They either gasp and adore it—like ‘I can’t get over how amazing it is’—or they just back away. There are very few other things where people are repulsed like this … In the 19th century no one batted an eyelash.”

“It’s a personal textile,” Snedden Yates explains. “It’s kind of like bone in that it doesn’t really decompose at the same rate as the rest of our bodies do. It’s not made of tissue, so if you keep it in the right environment it can be maintained indefinitely.”

Table work culled from the collection of Eden Daniels and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Table work from the collection of Eden Daniels
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

“Woven Strands” features examples of gimp work, palette work, table work, and dissolved hair work. It’s often hard to trace these types of artworks back to their original creators—they typically don’t bear signatures—but the curators “really wanted to find hair that you could connect to an actual human being,” Michelson says. “We chose pieces that have provenance. We know where they came from or when it was made, or who actually donated the hair in some cases, or what the family name was. We also picked out things that are unusual, that you don’t see often—oddities, if you will.”

Woven hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Woven hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Displayed in the Mütter Museum’s Thomson Gallery, “Woven Strands” opens on January 19, 2018, and runs through July 12, 2018. On April 7, 2018, master jeweler and art historian Karen Bachmann will lead a 19th century hair art workshop, followed by a day-long historical symposium on the art on Sunday, April 8.

Michelson hopes that “Woven Strands” will teach future generations about hair art, and open their minds to a craft they might have otherwise dismissed as parochial or, well, weird. “We hope that people see it and fall in love with it,” she says.

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