Plate 19 from Nova Reperta
by Johannes Stradanus

Human Proportions


The German artist Albrecht Dürer significantly shaped the developments of the sixteenth-century Renaissance, especially those in Northern Europe. He is generally credited with the introduction of the Italian system of scientific perspective and laws of proportion into Northern Europe. The wide dissemination of Dürer's graphic works gave impetus to these new artistic styles. Late in his life he produced scholarly treatises, including the Treatise on Measurement (1525) and the posthumously published Vier Bücher von Menschlicher Proportion (Nüremberg, 1528) (Four Books on Human Proportion) better known by its Latin title, De Symmetria, which was translated in the same year by Camerarius. De Symmetria addresses his investigations into ideal human proportion, showing the influence of Leonardo da Vinci (as had earlier paintings like Christ Among the Doctors, ca. 1506). It was published in various languages, including six Latin editions between 1528 and 1557, and in French, Italian, and Portuguese, indicating the broad popularity of the book.

In 1494, many years before the publication of De Symmetria, Dürer made his first trip to Italy, one that had a marked influence on him. He was deeply impressed by the higher status enjoyed by Italian painters. On his return to Nuremberg, Durer discussed Latin and humanist literature extensively with his friend, the learned humanist, Willibald Pirckheimer. He completed prolific work in drawing, paingting, and making prints, while he also pursued his study of geometry and perspective that he had begin in Italy. He wanted to increase his own stature and the status of painting in general. His self-portrait of 1498 reveals much of this concern. In this painting, Dürer sits before a window with an Italian-like landscape in the background. He wears elegant clothes and his hair and beard are well groomed, creating the appearance of high social rank. The image projected is that of a Florentine gentleman, not of a coarse artisan. This is the Dürer, the geometer, who compiled the treatises published posthumously as De Symmetria.

In De Symmetria's drawings, the human form has been subjected to analysis so that the artist may better understand how to render perfect proportion and a natural sense of movement. This illustration from Book Four Click Here for a Larger Viewshows Dürer's use of stereometry, the science of measuring volume, in this case utilizing variations or compounds of spheres, cylinders, cones, cubes, and pyramids, with the effect of endowing the visible world with an impersonal clarity. Simplifying the complex structure of the human form into transparent sections provides Dürer a means of achieving a sense of idealized human proportion as well as articulating the body's movements. Showing the body receding into pictorial space, or projecting forward from that space, requires manipulation of the proportional representation of the body's parts. In the illustration, Dürer demonstrates how stereometry can be used to solve the complex problem of foreshortening. In the frontal image of the left hand panel, we can see his use of stereometric construction. Note especially the foreshortened feet of the frontal model that are seen in the profile of the model at the far left.

James McManus
California State University at Chico

Suggested Reading

Durer, Albrecht. Dürer's Record of Journeys to Venice and the Low Countries. New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1995.

Durer, Albrecht. "The Human Figure:'The Complete Dresden Sketchbook" Edited by Walter L. Strauss. New York: Dover Publications, 1972.

Durer, Albrecht. Treatise on Measurement (1525) has been reprinted under the title, The Painter's Manual. New York: Arabis Books, Inc., 1977.

Hutchinson, Jane Campbell. Albrecht Dürer, a biography. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Kemp, Martin. The Science of Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.

Panofsky, Erwin. The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Singer, Hans W. Versuch einer Durer Bibliographie. Strassburg: Heitz, 1928.