Da Vinci's Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image

Da Vinci's Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image

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by Toby Lester
     
 

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Toby Lester—the award-winning author of The Fourth Part of the World, celebrated by Simon Winchester as “a rare and masterly talent”—takes on one of the great untold stories in the history of ideas: the genesis of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.Everybody knows the picture: a man, meticulously rendered by…  See more details below

Overview


Toby Lester—the award-winning author of The Fourth Part of the World, celebrated by Simon Winchester as “a rare and masterly talent”—takes on one of the great untold stories in the history of ideas: the genesis of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.Everybody knows the picture: a man, meticulously rendered by Leonardo da Vinci, standing with arms and legs outstretched in a circle and a square. Deployed today to celebrate subjects as various as the grandeur of art, the beauty of the human form, and the universality of the human spirit, the drawing turns up just about everywhere: in books, on coffee cups, on corporate logos, even on spacecraft. It has, in short, become the world’s most famous cultural icon—and yet almost nobody knows about the epic intellectual journeys that led to its creation. In this modest drawing that would one day paper the world, da Vinci attempted nothing less than to calibrate the harmonies of the universe and understand the central role man played in the cosmos.

Journalist and storyteller Toby Lester brings Vitruvian Man to life, resurrecting the ghost of an unknown Leonardo. Populated by a colorful cast of characters, including Brunelleschi of the famous Dome, Da Vinci’s Ghost opens up a surprising window onto the artist and philosopher himself and the tumultuous intellectual and cultural transformations he bridged. With sparkling prose and a rich variety of original illustrations, Lester captures the brief but momentous time in the history of western thought when the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, art and science and philosophy converged as one, and all seemed to hold out the promise that a single human mind, if properly harnessed, could grasp the nature of everything.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Before The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci created what would become one of the most reproduced images in the world, known formally as Vitruvian Man. A “man in a circle and a square,” the image continues to be “deployed variously to celebrate all sorts of ideas,” but it also represents da Vinci’s particular preoccupations. Da Vinci, writes Atlantic contributing editor Lester, wanted to “to investigate the makeup and function of everything.” One of the great contributions of books like this is to keep the reader from taking for granted a familiar object. Lester’s detective story has a satisfying number of insights, such as that Leonardo’s drive to accurately represent the human body was grounded in a desire to find the location of the soul. Lester (The Fourth Part of the World) also covers a broad swath of history, suggesting, for instance, that Hildegard of Bingen was one of da Vinci’s main precursors in believing the human body to be a microcosm of the world. Finally, Lester braids intellectual threads—philosophy, anatomy, architecture, and art—together in a way that reaffirms not only Leonardo’s genius but also re-establishes the significance of historical context in understanding great works of art. Illus. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Leonardo da Vinci set out to incorporate a perfect interpretation of the universe through his drawing Vitruvian Man, a male nude with four outstretched arms—perhaps indicating motion, perhaps measuring—and four outstretched legs proportioned within a circle in a square. It is one of Leonardo's best-known images, and Lester (contributing editor, Atlantic; The Fourth Part of the World: An Astonishing Epic of Global Discovery, Imperial Ambition, and the Birth of America) uses it as a device to celebrate the life and work of the artist and to pull together the philosophical, cosmic, and aesthetic influences on this prototypical Renaissance man and his profound effect on art and invention. Lester tells of Leonardo's childhood; apprenticeship in Andrea del Verrocchio's studio; ambition to break with the pack and decision to keep his mysterious notebooks; fascination with how things are made and work; interest in the classics, including Vitruvius's Ten Books on Architecture; and military designs. VERDICT A book for anyone who has wondered about the genius of Leonardo da Vinci and the Italian Renaissance, it will enlighten students and specialists as well as the reading and museum-going public.—Ellen Bates, New York
Kirkus Reviews
Atlantic editor Lester (The Fourth Part of the World: The Epic Story of History's Greatest Map, 2009, etc.) returns with another narrative-on-crank, this time about Leonardo da Vinci's ubiquitous drawing known officially as his Vitruvian Man. The author has a fondness of superlatives (see his subtitles), but in the case of da Vinci, it's hard to avoid them. Vitruvian Man--the drawing of a man, arms and legs in two different positions inside a circle and a square--is named for Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, a Roman military and civil engineer, whose Ten Books on Architecture proposed the idea that the human body was a microcosm--learn the body's secrets and design and you learn the universe's. Providing many useful illustrations, Lester shows how versions of this idea appeared in the works and drawings of numerous others before da Vinci eventually pinned it down on a sheet of paper not much larger than a standard piece of office stationery. The author charts da Vinci's career, noting his autodidacticism, his phenomenal desire to know everything, and his decision to keep notebooks and fill them with ideas, drawings, plans and observations. We also see a man who had trouble with deadlines: Da Vinci's own work interested him far more than his commissions. Lester is fond of the bait-and-switch tactic. For example, he tells us about a visit to an archive in Venice to see the original drawing; then, at the threshold, he changes the subject, and we wait about 200 pages for the viewing, which, oddly, is underwritten and anticlimactic. The author also likes portentous endings and beginnings to chapters. Leonardo-lite, but the illustrations are illuminating and da Vinci's life is inspiring.
Jonathan Lopez
…richly rewarding history…
—The New York Times Book Review
From the Publisher
"Lester braids intellectual threads—philosophy, anatomy, architecture, and art—together in a way that reaffirms not only Leonardo's genius but also re-establishes the significance of historical context in understanding great works of art." —Publishers Weekly Starred Review

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781439189238
Publisher:
Free Press
Publication date:
02/07/2012
Pages:
304
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"Lester braids intellectual threads—-philosophy, anatomy, architecture, and art—-together in a way that reaffirms not only Leonardo's genius but also re-establishes the significance of historical context in understanding great works of art." —-Publishers Weekly Starred Review

Meet the Author


Toby Lester is a contributing editor to and has written extensively for The Atlantic. His work has also been featured on the radio show This American Life. A former Peace Corps volunteer and United Nations observer, he lives in the Boston area with his wife and three daughters. He is an invited research scholar at Brown University’s John Carter Brown Library. His previous book, The Fourth Part of the World, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Award finalist.

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