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Thematic Correlation Between Leonardo da Vinci and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

The Microcosm-Macrocosm Analogy


Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452-1519)
 The Proportions of the Human Figure (Vitruvian Man) (1490)


1. The microcosm-macrocosm analogy was very important in Renaissance thought. An extensive treatment of this complex of ideas and its manifestations in intellectual currents such as magic and the occult, philosophy of nature, morals, and ethics would amount to an exhaustive study of Renaissance thought as a whole, to such a degree was this notion the motor of the intellectual life of that period…. Leonardo as well often referred in his manuscripts to this ancient analogy when he was describing the human body…. For Renaissance artists, the Vitruvian passage about the proportions for the homo bene figuratus presented an occasion to think again about the analogy between macrocosm and microcosm and to use it in a search for the essence of art and beauty. God created the cosmos with perfect proportions and in perfect harmony and, therefore, in perfect beauty. Man, as a microcosm, is a reflection of the macrocosm. Divine proportions can therefore be discovered in the human body. When an artist wants to make something beautiful it must be modeled on divine proportions. The artist therefore will use the human body as the most accessible and measurable system of divine proportions. Vitruvius recorded this system in this treatise. Through Leonardo’s unmistakable use of the medieval pictorial tradition in the representation of the Vitruvius passage, notions about the microcosm were fed automatically, as it were, into the new proportion theory. Because of the use of the medieval scheme of the homo ad circulum and ad quadratum the coupling of Vitruvian proportion theory with medieval analogy between macrocosm and microcosm became immediately visible for Renaissance readers. This underlines the independent status and meaning of the visual representation of ideas and concepts.

Robert Zwijnenberg, The Writings and Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci: Order and Chaos in Early Modern Thought (London: Cambridge University Press, 1999): 104-105.


By the ancients man has been called the world in miniature; and certainly this name is well bestowed, because, inasmuch as man is composed of earth, water, air and fire, his body resembles that of the earth; as man has in him bones the supports and framework of his flesh, the world has its rocks the supports of the earth; as man has in him a pool of blood in which the lungs rise and fall in breathing, so the body of the earth has its ocean tide which likewise rises and falls every six hours, as if the world breathed; as in that pool of blood veins have their origin, which ramify all over the human body, so likewise the ocean sea fills the body of the earth with infinite springs of water.

Leonardo da Vinci, # 929 in The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci. Compiled and Edited From the Original Manuscripts By Jean Paul Richter. (New York: Dover, 1883/1970): 179.

3. …but in Pico’s oration, a new element is present. His whole view is pervaded by that characteristic microcosm motif developed by Cusanus and by Ficino after him. Through this motif the oration becomes something more than mere rhetorical showpiece. Its rhetorical pathos contains a specifically modern pathos of thought. The dignity of man cannot reside in his being, i.e., in the place allotted man once and for all in the cosmic order. The hierarchical system subdivides the world into different levels and places each being in one of these levels as its rightful place in the universe. But such a view does not grasp the meaning and the problem of human freedom. For this meaning lies in the reversal of the relationship we are accustomed to accepting between being and acting.

Ernst Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1927/1963): 84.

The Microcosm-Macrocosm Motif in Renaissance Philosophy

1. Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464)
2. Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499)
3. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494)
4. Pietro Pompanazzi (1462-1524)
5. Carolus Bovillus (Charles de Bouelles): De sapiente (1509)