Michelangelo
and David
Michelangelo (or Michelagniolo Buonarroti)
(1475–1564) became an artist, against his
father’s wishes, at the age of 13. Originally
apprenticed as a painter, he rapidly achieved
fame also as a sculptor, and later in life as a
poet and architect. The range of his supreme
talent is highlighted by his four greatest
works: the Pietà in St Peter’s in Rome, the Last
Judgement on the wall of the Sistine Chapel in
the Vatican, the dome of St Peter’s Basilica in
Rome, and the statue of David in Florence. David
was carved from a single piece of white Carrara
marble which had been rejected by other
sculptors as being too shallow. The statue was
originally commissioned to decorate the
cathedral, but became the first since the time
of ancient Rome to be presented separately on
its own plinth. It represents the moment at
which the youthful David is about to slay
Goliath, and is filled with political and
cultural symbolism. For the Florentines it
represented the ideal of the selfsufficient
republic ready to withstand any pressure from
its neighbours. For Michelangelo, David was the
embodiment of his personal ideal of male
strength and beauty. It is more Greek than
Hebrew in its representation, and while alluding
to Lorenzo de’ Medici, the ruler of Florence, it
bears some facial resemblance to the artist
himself. This single work established
Michelangelo as the greatest sculptor in Italy.

David
and human proportion (I)
Michelangelo made countless drawings
and measurements of the human body (living and dead,
as well as Greek and Roman statues) in order to
understand its shape, proportions and variations. Of
course, human proportions vary with the individual,
but in classical art, the body of the ideal figure
is 8 headlengths from head to toe. In real life the
adult human body is 7 to 8 headlengths. Dürer
favoured 7.5 headlengths in his pictures, Rembrandt
used 7, while Giacometti at times used 12. The
figure of David uses 7 headlengths.
Investigate
Taking the headlength as the
vertical distance from under the
chin to the top of the head, measure
the height of a number of people in
hl. What is the average height and
how does it relate to the classical
ideal?For
the classicallytrained artist,
these ‘rules of thumb’ indicate the
relative proportions of the human
body:

Age

Height
(in headlengths)

1
4
8
12
16
adult
old age

4
5
6.5
7
7.5
8
7


Investigate
Check the above figures against body
measurements found in paintings and sculptures.
Survey people of different ages to check the figures
with reallife data.
The choice of
7 headlengths for David emphasized his
youth, but was probably used to correct for
distortion due to the observer’s position:
David’s head is some 7 m above ground level.
If rendered in ‘correct’ proportion, the
head would appear too small. 


David and human proportion (II)
Taking the eight headlengths body as a
standard, there are other rules of thumb adopted by
artists for depicting the human body (allowing for
malefemale differences). Some are given in the table
below. Lengths are in headlengths.
Lengths

Body benchmarks

0.5

• eye level to top of the
head
• pelvic ridge to bottom of rib cage 
• knuckles to fingertips

0.75

• length of hand: wrist to
finger tips
• length of collarbone 
• vertical height of shoulder
blade
• length of breastbone 
1

• bottom
of shoulderblade to back of neck (top of
protruding vertebra)
• distance between male nipples
• distance between pelvic ridges 
• length
of foot
• height from navel to nippleline
• distance from navel to pubic bone 
1.5

• distance
across chest (male)

• distance
across male hips 
2

• leg from
knee to ankle
• lower arm from elbow to fingertip
• width of female torso including arms at
midchest height 
• leg from
top of hip bone to knee
• leg from top of hip bone to knee
• width of male shoulders betwen shoulder
joints 
3

• navel to
top of the head
• length of outstretched arm from armpit to
fingertip 
• navel to knee cap 

4

• pubic
bone to top of the head 
.


Vitruvius
and human proportion
Probably the earliest canon of
human proportion in the Western world (the
Ancient Egyptians had one much earlier) was that
of Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollo (31
B.C. – 14 A.D.). He wrote in his De
architectura libri decem,
‘A magnificent
temple cannot be constructed
properly, unless it is built in an
orderly manner with regard to
symmetry and proportion of its
parts, as is the case with a
wellbuilt man. For the human body
is designed by nature, put together
and created so that the head from
the chin to the hairline measures
one tenth of the entire body.
Likewise the flat or extended hand
from the wrist to the tip of the
middle finger is equal to the
distance from the chin to the part
of the hair, i.e. one eighth part.
Likewise from the bottom of the neck
and the high point of the chest to
the hairline, one sixth; and to the
top of the head, one quarter. But to
the level of the mouth, one third;
from the tip of the chin to the
nose, from the tip of the nose to
the midpoint of the eyebrows, and
thence to the root of the hair, each
one third. The length of the foot is
one sixth of the body length, the
forearm one quarter, the chest one
quarter. In this manner all other
limbs have their proportional
measurements, which were observed by
ancient painters and sculptors.’ 
Investigate
Check out the Vitruvian system of proportion
by drawing some figures in accord with the
system, or checking it against reallife data. 

Dürer
and human proportion
Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528),
German painter, engraver and mathematician, made
a detailed study of the human form, and was
thoroughly familiar with the work of Vitruvius,
Leonardo and other Italian Renaissance artists.
He explored many methods for constructing the
human form according to their shape and
proportion. He used circles, triangles, ratios
and proportions, and polyhedra (a method known
as stereometry), and was a pioneer in
investigating the shape and proportion of the
human body under the influence of ‘perspective
projection’. Among these studies, he
investigated the human head and its facial
characteristics, distorting its shape using grid
transformations.
Investigate
Sketch a head in profile (say, from a
magazine) within a 10
10
square grid. Now redraw the picture within
grids in which the grid lines are spaced at
other than equal intervals, or in which the
grid lines are curved. What effect does this
have on the shape or ‘look’ of the head? 

Human
proportion: average vs ideal
(Quételet)
(for those with some
statistics)Based on
thousands of measurements of the human body
taken from the Renaissance artists and from his
own collection, Adolphe Quételet (1796 – 1874),
a Belgian astronomer, mathematician and
statistician, defined the ‘average man’ whose
measurements were the average of all
measurements. For Quételet, the average was an
ideal value: other measurements of the same
trait were distributed about this according to
the normal probability curve. The Average
represented the Ideal of the species, and
deviations from the Average were considered to
be ‘errors of measurement’.
According to the normal
distribution curve, if we measure (say) the
height of 100 people in cms, then the heights
will be distributed approximately as follows:
34
heights lie between the mean and +1 standard
deviation (d.v.) from the mean,
14 heights lie between +1 and +2 d.v. from the
mean,
2 heights lie beyond +2 d.v. from the mean,
and similarly for heights which lie below the
mean. The heights are thus symmetrical about the
mean.
Investigate
Measure
the heights of 100 people and plot
them on a frequency histogram.
Calculate the mean and standard
deviation and mark these on the
histogram. Count the number of
heights within each standard
deviation interval. Do your data
follow the normal curve? 


Human
proportion: average vs ideal
(Galton) Following
Quételet, Sir Francis Galton (1822 – 1911),
English scientist, explorer and anthropometrist,
showed that if any set of measurements within a
population (e.g. the heights of all people) is
normally distributed, then so are sets of
similar measurements of any subgroup of that
population, and vice versa. He showed too there
is a correlation between the measurements of
different parts of the body.
For example, for white U.S.
males aged 18 to 30 years, the relationship
between the height of a person and the length of
the upper arm bone (humerus) is
y = 3.08x +
70.45, where y = height in cms and x
= length of humerus in cms.
For white U.S. females aged 18
to 30 years, the relationship is y = 3.36x +
57.97.
The expected or standard error
for males is ± 4.05 cms, for females, ± 4.45 cms.
Such relationships are
important in forensic pathology and anthropology
as a means of predicting the likely height and
other characteristics of a body from bone
measurements. More widely, such data are
critical in ergonomics: the size and shape of
the ‘average person’ are important in designing
human environments and equipment.It is
interesting to ponder whether a person of the
proportions of Michelangelo’s David would be
comfortable in today’s world!


