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

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In Da Vinci's Ghost, critically acclaimed historian Toby Lester tells the story of the world?s most iconic image, the Vitruvian Man, and sheds surprising new light on the artistry and scholarship of Leonardo da Vinci, one of history?s most fascinating figures.

Deftly weaving together art, architecture, history, theology, and much else, Da Vinci's Ghost is a first-rate intellectual enchantment.??Charles Mann, author of 1493

Da Vinci didn?t ...

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

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In Da Vinci's Ghost, critically acclaimed historian Toby Lester tells the story of the world’s most iconic image, the Vitruvian Man, and sheds surprising new light on the artistry and scholarship of Leonardo da Vinci, one of history’s most fascinating figures.

Deftly weaving together art, architecture, history, theology, and much else, Da Vinci's Ghost is a first-rate intellectual enchantment.”Charles Mann, author of 1493

Da Vinci didn’t summon Vitruvian Man out of thin air. He was inspired by the idea originally formulated by the Roman architect Vitruvius, who suggested that the human body could be made to fit inside a circle, long associated with the divine, and a square, related to the earthly and secular. To place a man inside those shapes was to imply that the human body could indeed be a blueprint for the workings of the universe. Da Vinci elevated Vitruvius’ idea to exhilarating heights when he set out to do something unprecedented, if the human body truly reflected the cosmos, he reasoned, then studying its anatomy more thoroughly than had ever been attempted before—peering deep into body and soul—might grant him an almost godlike perspective on the makeup of the world.

Written with the same narrative flair and intellectual sweep as Lester’s award-winning first book, the “almost unbearably thrilling” (Simon Winchester) Fourth Part of the World, and beautifully illustrated with Da Vinci's drawings, Da Vinci’s Ghost follows Da Vinci on his journey to understanding the secrets of the Vitruvian man. It captures a pivotal time in Western history when the Middle Ages were giving way to the Renaissance, when art, science, and philosophy were rapidly converging, and when it seemed possible that a single human being might embody—and even understand—the nature of the universe.

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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Lopez
…richly rewarding history…
—The New York Times Book Review
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.)
From the Publisher
“Perfect for [somebody who] loves biography and nonfiction, particularly idea-driven books like Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel.The Wall Street Journal

"Lester pulls on the threads of Waldseemüller's map and finds an extraordinary braid of influences. [He] builds a cumulative tale of rich, diverse influences that he juggles with gathering speed and showmanship until the whir of detail coalesces into an inspired, imaginative piece of mapmaking.”San Francisco Chronicle

“One of this year's most captivating and richly detailed histories."The News Tribune

“Lester captures the passion, curiosity and, at times, the hubris behind the European explorations. His real interest lies in the evolution of Europeans' perception of the world, as reflected by their maps, an approach that works splendidly. To mid-millennial Europeans, there was nothing over the western sea but mystery and legends about islands, monsters and mythical beings. It took courage to sail off into that unknown, and Lester's book offers a clear survey of how people came to understand the world in which they lived.”The Washington Post

“Fascinating. Without Toby Lester's fine book, the Waldseemüller Map might remain an interesting historical footnote. Instead, one now understands the creation of the map as a world-changing moment, "a birth certificate for the world that came into being in 1492 — and a death warrant for the one that was there before.’"Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Maps – intricate, absurd, fantastical, ridiculous – fill this beautiful book, reinforcing Lester’s thesis that they tell us as much about their makers as our surroundings. The heretofore unknown fourth part of the world was an enormous, unspoiled continent whose natural resources could be exploited and whose natives could be converted, sold into slavery, or exterminated. Like any train wreck, the controversies of this historical moment fascinate.”The Christian Science Monitor

“Compelling ... allows us to see how a group of European Renaissance scholars 'managed to arrive at a new understanding of the world as a whole.' Mr. Lester bravely ventures where few have gone before."The New York Times

“Thrilling. Vital to anyone interested in knowing the story of this country. An elegant and thoughtful account of the one morsel of cartographic history that would shake the world's foundations. [Lester's] is a rare and masterly talent."—Simon Winchester, author of, most recently, The Man Who Loved China

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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781439189245
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 10/30/2012
  • Pages: 275
  • Sales rank: 346,837
  • Product dimensions: 5.64 (w) x 8.22 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Toby Lester is the author of The Fourth Part of the World (2009) and a contributing editor to The Atlantic. A former Peace Corps volunteer and United Nations observer, he lives in the Boston area with his wife and three daughters. His work has also appeared on the radio program This American Life.

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Table of Contents

Preface xv

Prologue: 1490 1

1 Body of Empire 13

2 Microcosm 42

3 Master Leonardo 63

4 Milan 92

5 The Artist-Engineer 108

6 Master Builders 126

7 Body and Soul 159

8 Portrait of the Artist 190

Epilogue: Afterlife 218

Further Reading 227

Notes 231

Works Cited 247

Acknowledgments 255

Permissions and Credits 259

Index 265

Reading Group Guide and Author Q&A 279

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 12 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 8, 2012

    Highly recommended.

    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.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 19, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Good History and Analysis of Leonardo's Vitruvian Man The drawi

    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.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 15, 2012


    toby lester is a genius

    1 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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