Listen With Others

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Listener No 4553, Inscription: A Setter’s Blog by Dysart

Posted by Listen With Others on 26 May 2019

Back in the sixties I was aware of the iconic image of Vitruvian Man without knowing its name or creator, as it was used as part of the introductory sequence to ITV’s World In Action. Once I learned more about it, I considered constructing a puzzle based on the image not long after I started setting puzzles, but it remained just an idea until about two years ago when I noted that May 2nd 2019 would be the quincentenary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death. I needed to move quickly.

Da Vinci labelled the drawing ‘the proportions of the human body according to Vitruvius,’ the Roman architect and engineer whose treatise on ideal proportions in architecture was based on proportions in the human body. The following internet page gives further information on the artist’s use of the Roman architect’s work for anyone interested: My Modern Met.

Initially I wasn’t sure how to treat the theme, but gradually I came to think that it might be possible to design a grid containing a rough template for drawing the man. Da Vinci drew lines dividing the body into sections to indicate the proportions (with crossword setters in mind?). This proved useful because the two lines delineating the torso show it to be a third of the total height. The five cells for the letters of TORSO ideally demanded a 14×14 grid, but by that time I’d decided that solvers would be asked to add the circle, thus making the effective dimensions 17×17, which would almost certainly present the editors with problems. I settled on a 13×13 grid, which would require a roughly 16×16 circle. It wouldn’t matter if the final O of each ‘TORSO’extended below the groin into the thigh area. Without revealing the theme I asked Roger Phillips if a space of 16×16 cells for the grid area would be feasible. His reply that they had previously managed to accommodate a 17×17 grid reassured me, so I went ahead.

I opted for a carte blanche grid to avoid obtrusive bars that would spoil the final result. Mirror symmetry was an obvious thematic choice, and that would make it easier for solvers to build the grid. Although some letters could be in consecutive cells, others would need to be spaced apart unless I resorted to some jumbled entries, which I wanted to avoid. Solvers would need some recognizable pattern in the spacing, which I achieved using alternate cells and ‘knight’s moves’. After plotting the letters of ARMS, LEGS and TORSO on a 13×13 grid I superimposed it on an image of Vitruvian Man scaled to the same size. The result (Stage.1) looked close enough. The main weakness was that the Rs of the raised ARMS were out of line, but there was little I could do about that, and the letters were intended to be only a guide to the drawing, not a precise template.

Stage 1

Initially I wasn’t sure what word could indicate the head. In the end I decided it wasn’t necessary, and a large cell could be left blank to be filled in by solvers in the finale. The title of the piece seemed the best hint to the theme and I decided to include it in the grid via letters unclued in wordplay. VITRUVIAN MAN proved awkward because of the initial V. With the thematic letters of the figure already fixed, it was impossible to place a V in the first few rows. My choice of the Italian title was to solve this problem, not to confuse solvers. It was also necessary to build in an instruction to add the circle to complete the artwork. I wanted to avoid another clue gimmick (mixed gimmicks are usually a potential source of confusion for solvers), and as the grid was to be carte blanche I thought one set of clues could be in alphabetical order of answers, with initial letters of clues providing the instruction when arranged in normal order.

Construction of the grid wasn’t particularly difficult. I couldn’t avoid three five-letter entries with two unchecked cells, but there were four entries with no unches by way of compensation, and I was able to get in some thirteen-letter entries to help solvers placing answers. Replacing PEGLEG with LEGLEN in column 7 resulted in a sequence of four Ls in row 8, which rather restricted the fill options. My reason for the replacement was to force solvers to use the G of GROPES to show the rotated foot of the man’s left leg

When I came to prepare a solution in Photoshop using an outline of the artist’s original I noticed that the square was not quite square and the circle was slightly elliptical. This meant that when I tried to superimpose the original on my grid and then add the circle nothing quite lined up. One of the feet and one of the raised arms failed to meet the circle. To get everything right I had to true up the image of Vitruvian Man in Photoshop. The da Vinci drawing can be seen to be out of true by expanding it to fill the monitor screen; the bottom of the square will not be parallel to the bottom edge of the screen

Test solves revealed no major issues, so after tweaking some clues I sent the puzzle to the Listener editors, praying that another setter had not already submitted a centenary puzzle. In my solution notes I included one grid using the original artwork just to show it fitted the grid closely. I did expect some complaints about a final task that would present difficulties to the artistically challenged but feedback has been very positive. It‘s only fair that I should attempt what I was asking solvers to do, so the final image is my drawing of Vitruvian Man, only achieved after a couple of attempts and rather more time than most solvers would want to spend on it. I failed O level art and have never been able to draw humans or animals, or much else.


One solver in his feedback wondered “what was going on at his groin, which is probably why he looks so depressed.” A few years ago one medical expert suggested that the model had an inguinal hernia causing the bulge in his groin.


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