Evolving a Form Language: Da Vinci, from the Vitruvian man to Dissections.
Using the above (first two entries) as a spring board or foundation to understand practices in Renaissance architecture, I'll now turn to specific instances where figures show this dissolve from anatomical study into abstraction/concept, and architectural plan. Following this line of inquiry, it would be difficult to discuss Renaissance art without focusing on the practice of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo's anatomical studies were at the forefront of the evolution of anatomical thinking in the 15th and 16th centuries. He was associated with the anatomist Marcantonio della Torre, and had planned to write a book on the subject of human anatomy. While the practice of human dissection was closely controlled by ecclesiastical and civil rules (though not actually prohibited), dissections of criminals was sometimes possible. Through his dissections, Leonardo made important discoveries; the frontal sinus of the cranium, and the four cavities of the heart and its muscular nature were but a few among them. Da Vinci’s studies weren’t only devoted to that of humans -- his study of anatomy and proportions also extended to the animal realm. With Da Vinci, the study of anatomy became something very different than it had been earlier in the Renaissance. Where anatomy had once been the study of skeletal and muscle structure to facilitate the accurate representation of the nude figure, da Vinci's studies of anatomy intertwined with his ideas on physiognomy (or underlying essence/force to a figure and or expression), as well as his broader ideas on art. In other words, da Vinci's studies show a critical involvement and analysis beyond a mere passive recording of the effects of exterior surfaces. On almost all of Leonardo’s figurative break downs and studies are a series of geometric diagrams. On one such anatomical drawing, Leonardo has gone so far as to write “let no one who is not a mathematician read my principles.” With this point of consistency from our discussion Vitruvius to Alberti, the question remains how this thinking of geometry blended figurative and architectural principles into one and the same practice.
While da Vinci's anatomical studies might be seen in light of his activities as a painter, there is still a strong focus on the mathematical interpretation of the figure’s design and formula (this might be most clearly seen in his use of “cross-sections,” which will be discussed shortly). Further, Leonardo stands as an ideal case study, as it is known that he was working simultaneously on sectional perspectives and anatomical dissections (1487-89), while also actively involved with the dome of the Milan Cathedral (and ideal churches, 1487-88), as well as the Vitruvian man (1490). In what follows, I will address Leonardo’s Vitruvian man, anatomical cross sections, and architectural studies, highlighting the simultaneity of these practices in order to propose a mode of thought in line with the above inquiry, specifically a mathematical and geometric interpretation of the body and its translation into a process facilitating architectural design.
Fig. 1 Leonardo da Vinci, Man inscribed in a square and a circle (the ‘Vitruvian Man’), 1490, pen and ink with wash over metal point on paper, 34.4 x 25.5 cm, Venice, Galleria dell’Accademia (image taken from web).
Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (fig.1) shows the anterior view of a man surrounded by, as well as connecting, a square and circle. This is as Vitruvius described, when he stated, “also a square will be found described within a figure, in the same way a round figure is produced.” In this drawing, we see two of the most important shapes used in Renaissance architecture and its re-birth of a mathematically inspired interpretation of the world. The circle and the square, and/or a composite of both, stand as the keystones to design in Renaissance architecture. In da Vinci's drawing, we see an emphasis on the contiguity of the human body with geometry, in an effort to demonstrate a divine harmony between the macro- and microcosms. Speaking to the symbolic value of these shapes for the Renaissance, John Hendrix states:
If the square is taken as the traditional symbol of the earth and the circle is taken as the traditional symbol of the divine, then the drawing represents the ability of man to connect the celestial and the material, by being able to ascend to the one and descend to the other in his soul.
Using his Vitruvian Man, da Vinci illustrates a form language that describes essential geometries incorporated in abstracting from nature, or specifically in this case, the figure. Further, the square and the circle (and geometry as a whole) directly relate to da Vinci's ongoing interest in a “transformation” – “or the plastic moulding of one shape into another without change of area or volume.” For da Vinci, the Vitruvian Man stands at the center of an aesthetic preoccupation, or an obsession with squaring the circle. This is in addition to seeing the transformative qualities between the two (as in the opening and closing of the heart as it contracts). To this point, Martin Kemp suggests that Leonardo’s relationship to volume and form was one of an objective sculpture realized from principles of harmony and proportion outlined in Vitruvius. Kemp states
… whenever he manipulated geometrical shapes or forms, they always assumed a concrete and real existence in his mind and in his hands, as a form of mental sculpture.
What we can take from this is the idea that form was not a random occurrence, but rather the outcome of a very deliberate and strict logic. It might also be said, especially in the case of da Vinci, that his form language made possible a mental sculpture, through which geometries created the potential for the realization and depiction of multiple subjects. As such, this language is one not directed at a recording of the figure, but rather an elevated awareness of the geometric volumes and their role in developing a higher unity. Oswald Mathia Ungers has noted this principle in his discussion of “The Criteria of Architecture,” stating “the essential geometrical figures remained the circle and the square, as representations and synonyms for the cosmos. Just as the human body was a clearly defined organism, with heads and limbs, so were buildings.” Armed with a language of form and a syntax for how those forms should be proportioned, da Vinci was designing a visual rule consistent with an ideal that could be carried over again and again into other any design. To return to Unger,
Form was not a random occurrence but the outcome of applied logic, and hence comparable with the result of applying proportional relationships. Seen in this light, architecture was a question of giving order to matter, physical data, and reality through the application of reason …matter was subjected to the rigors of form. Such a logic excluded any concept of an ideal of matter or functionality. Architecture was comparable to a science that had lost sight of the absolute, the Platonic concept of reality, truth, and beauty.”
If the Vitruvian Man qualifies as a visual manifestation of an aesthetic program, it follows that we can also see these ideas in da Vinci's cross-sections and anatomical breakdowns. From a modern understanding, anatomy is the structure of the parts of the body revealed by its dissection. That is, the structure of the body, its parts and the whole, is revealed by the art of “cutting” the body. In a very practical way, we may consider the drawings made by da Vinci as studies revealing the interior structure of the of the body in an effort to rationalize the shape and form of the exterior. To go one step further, we can say that da Vinci was studying the beauty/unity that existed among the chorus of smaller parts. These smaller parts would be studied for their design and proportion, and aligned with a series of geometric equivalents. Further, if we agree with the notion that buildings are indeed a form of a body (from the largest proportions and structure down to the smallest detail and ornament), we should expect to see the body being shown in architectural terms or architecture realized as the result of exploration of human anatomy. My final examples which will follow will strive to point out the shared technical language between anatomy and architecture. For this, I will continue to look at Leonardo da Vinci, and the not yet discussed Albrecht Dürer. In the following section, I will focus more on examples of mental sculpture and/or transformative examples of figure becoming architecture.
 Domenico Laurenza, Art and Anatomy in the Renaissance: Images from a Scientific Revolution, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012), 13.
 Martin Kemp, Leonardo Da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design, (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006), 12.
 Vitruvius, 72.
 John Hendrix, “The Neoplatonic Aesthetics of Leon Battista Alberti,” in Neo-Platonic Aesthetics: Music Literature, & the Visual Arts, eds. Liana De Girolami Cheney and John Hendrix ( New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2004), 163.
 Kemp, 14.
 Ibid., 14.
 Ibid., 14.
 Ungers, 315
 Ibid., 316.