A newly published book about Leonardo Da Vinci (yes there’s another, but don’t worry, this one’s actually meant to be factual) promises to tell ‘the untold story of the world’s most famous drawing’. At least that’s what its cover promises. Now while we may all have our own ideas as to which drawing would be classified as the world’s most famous – perhaps a Rembrandt sketch, a Michelangelo scribble or a Picasso scrawl – the book handily deals with that issue for us as well, featuring as its front cover illustration Da Vinci’s Canon of Proportions. Hmmm? You haven’t heard of it? It is ‘… the world’s most famous drawing’ after all. We’ll help you out. It’s more commonly known today by its colloquial name, The Vitruvian Man.

The drawing is much more than just a naked guy doing a star jump. It’s Da Vinci’s realisation of the ideal proportions and geometry of the human form, as defined by the ancient Roman architect Marcos Vitruvius Pollio in Book III of his architectural tome, De Architectura. It is in Vitruvius’ honour that the drawing is now popularly named, and Da Vinci’s 1487 work was a highlight in attempts by the Italian polymath to blend art and science during the High Renaissance. In many of his endeavours, Da Vinci tried to demonstrate that the workings of the universe were analogous to the workings of the human form, and The Vitruvian Man was yet another example of this - precise measurements for palms, feet, cubits, yards, and fathoms can be taken from various points of the body and its surrounding square.

Author Toby Lester’s new book, Da Vinci’s Ghost, explores the idea that the Renaissance master sought to link architectural principles with cosmology and the evolution of religious and scientific thinking, as well as recounting the biographical details that surrounded Da Vinci’s creation of The Vitruvian Man. The essence of ‘the untold story of the world’s most famous drawing’ seems to be that a lot occurred before Da Vinci’s pen touched the paper. The drawing that survives today, which is pen and ink on paper and is currently stored at the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice, was just the culmination of a line of thought and artistic creation that stretched back throughout his career.

There are numerous drawings that served as precedents for the The Vitruvian Man and there are plenty of examples of other artistic and scientific experiments in which Da Vinci tried to unify the principles of the macro and microcosmic. One fascinating revelation that the new book brings forth is that prior to 1956, the drawing really wasn’t widely known by the greater public. We think of it as ubiquitous because, nowadays at least, it really is – the image can be seen on currency, space suits and in innumerable logos. But prior to the publication of Kenneth Clark’s The Nude: A Study In Ideal Form, the words The Vitruvian Man probably would have resulted in a look of bafflement from most people. Although the drawing is over 500 years old, it’s interesting to think that it’s only in the last 50 years that it has taken on the significance and the stature that we commonly associate with it today.