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

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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Da Vinci's Ghost: The Untold Story of the World's Most Famous Drawing 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Quillman74 More than 1 year ago
I have always enjoyed reading about the history of ideas and their power as it waxes and wanes over time. This book fell easily into that sweet spot for me. Well written and with enough personal touches to keep it from being dry, this work traces the lineage of the idea of man as the measure of all things and his relationship to the divine.
JGolomb More than 1 year ago
Good History and Analysis of Leonardo's Vitruvian Man The drawing is well known, if not universally recognized (and I mean universal in the literal sense). Leonardo DaVinci’s print of the human male figure, arms and legs outstretched, touching both a square and a circle drawn within the square, can be found on t-shirts and mousepads, corporate logos, as well as parodies including The Simpsons. It’s on the €1 Euro coin, but perhaps most impressively, it’s been launced into space on several long distance and very long term missions. It’s called “Vitruvian Man”, and among Leonardo’s eclectically vast tableau of work it remains one of his most enigmatic pieces. Author Toby Lester delves deeply into this single DaVinci masterpiece to expose its roots, its meanings and its lasting impressions. Lester provides insight into the genesis of this work which currently resides at the Accademia Gallery in Venice, though it’s not currently on display. The name comes from the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius: “Writing at the dawn of the Roman imperial age, Virtuvius proposed that a man can be made to fit inside a circle and a square, and some fifteen hundred years later Leonardo gave that idea memorable visual form. But there’s much more to the story than that. Vitruvius had described his figure in an architectural context, insisting that the proportions of sacred temples should conform to the proportions of the idea human body – the design of which, he believed, conformed to the hidden geometry of the universe.” Lester identifies some seriously heavy metaphysical connotations of the drawing as well, and the concept that it engenders. “The circle represented the cosmic and the divine; the square represented the earthly and the secular. Anybody proposing that a man could be made to fit inside both shapes was therefore making an age-old metaphysical statement. It was the world, in miniature.” He continues, “It’s an idealized self-portrait in which Leonardo, stripped down to his essence, takes his own measure, and in doing so embodies a timeless human hope: that we must might have the power of mind to figure out how we fit into the grand scheme of things.” Leonardo’s Virtuvian Man is estimated to be drawn in about 1490, but it’s just a guess since he didn’t date the work. The timing fits in with the style of draftsmanship, kinds of paper and pen he used, and even his handwriting of the time. Most importantly, it would place the work during “the very period in his career when he was immersed in his intensive study of human proportions and had a special interest in comparing his own measurements to those listed in Virtruvius’ work," wrote Lester. Leonardo spent many years examining the human body in great detail, and he left numerous drawings based on his first-hand anatomical dissections. He started to make specific connections between the human body and architecture, which one can see creep into his notebook doodlings in the 1480s. Vitruvius provided specific measurements of the idealized male form and these measurements act as a starting point for Leonardo’s work. Leonardo expands and improves upon the original description. Lester writes that DaVinci “corrected previous interpretations of an ancient text…to capture the essential message of (Vitruvius): that the human form embodied the natural harmonies present in the circle and the square.” And the face upon the Vitruvian man is likely Leonardo’s self-portrait as well. The book includes detailed notes and a plethora of images, taking advantage, in the digital form, to link seamlessly back and forth from the various reference points within the ebook edition. Lester’s book is a good read. It’s most successful, in my opinion, in its details surrounding Leonardo the man, his motivations, and the outline of his career. It fails, however, in its dubious connections presumed by author Lester, based upon an unfortunately incomplete record and circumstantial evidence. Leonardo spent some time with individuals that had their own connections with Vitruvius' work, and he had access to many historical works with various ties to the ancient work as well. Lester sometimes acknowledges that it’s “impossible to say”, for example, how much of certain concepts Leonardo was able to absorb by reading, but too often relies on ideas that Leonardo 'must have' read this, or 'likely' spoke to someone about that. I enjoyed this book. Lester does a nice job writing readable history. The concepts are, at times, tough to wrap ones arms around, and Lester does well in providing just enough background and context to make things attainable.
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You
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toby lester is a genius