At Rome’s Museo Leonardo da Vinci, we make a beeline for the polymath’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man. Our target is splayed against an earth-coloured wall along with enlarged samples of the paragraphs scripted by the ambidextrous creator of Mona Lisa, arguably the most widely recognised feminine visage on the planet. (Later, we found siennaand- ochre-hued T-shirts bearing the same athletic image – perhaps the most recognisable symbol of the Renaissance – in the museum shop facing Piazza del Popolo.)
Hovering above the display were a couple of flying machines that Da Vinci designed. These were called ornithopters. The drawing beneath them showed a muscular man with outstretched hands in two superimposed states that are fitted inside a circle and a square. For his icon of ideal proportions, Da Vinci used ideas originally developed by a Roman architect from the first century BCE called Marcus Vitruvius. This explains why Da Vinci’s sketch is better known as Vitruvian Man.
As Vitruvius himself wrote in Book III of Des Architectura, “It was by employing ideas (of symmetrical proportions) that the famous painters and sculptors of antiquity attained great and endless renown.” One of these antique lands was India, argues Ashish Jaiswal in Fluid, a paean to inter-disciplinary flexibility and creativity. We met the Oxford educationist-scholar in Mumbai soon after coming from Rome. He told us Indian polymaths had already created marvellous versions of the perfect men and women, probably a thousand years before Vitruvius.
Indian ancestors of the Vitruvian Man are found in the Vishnudharmottara Purana, an encyclopaedia of arts, sciences, architecture and philosophy, cast primarily in the form of a conversation between the legendary sage Markandeya and King Vraja, the great grandson of Krishna, the ninth incarnation of the all-pervasive protector God, Vishnu.
“Sage Markandeya’s discourse highlights the integrative nature of all disciplines,” Jaiswal writes, “And, in turn, the integrative nature of the universe, needs to be appreciated before you can master even a single discipline.”
Likewise, Da Vinci labelled his anatomical drawings and the sketch of the Vitruvian Man cosmografia del minor mondo – cosmography of the microcosm. Like most of his medieval contemporaries, the artist-savant believed the workings of the human body to be an analogy for the workings of the universe. Not surprisingly, Indian tradition also had similar notions: Even while celebrating variety – pinde pinde matir-bhinna – it takes all kinds to make the world – our sages focused on the cosmic connections unifying that diversity.
(To be continued)
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