Cover image for 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
1st Free press hardcover ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Free Press, 2012.
Physical Description:
xv, 275 p., [8] p. of plates : ill. (some col.) ; 24 cm.
Prologue. 1490 -- Body of empire -- Microcosm -- Master Leonardo -- Milan -- The artist-engineer -- Master builders -- Body and soul -- Portrait of the artist -- Epilogue. Afterlife.
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.


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Book 921 LEONARDO 1 1
Book 921 LEONARDO 1 1
Book 921 LEONARDO 1 1

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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.

Author Notes

Toby Lester is a contributing editor to and has written extensively for The Atlantic . A former Peace Corps volunteer and United Nations observer, he lives in the Boston area with his wife and three daughters. His previous book, The Fourth Part of the Wo rld (2009), about the map that gave America its name, was a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers Award and was picked as a Book of the Year by several other publications. His work has also appeared on the radio program This American Life .

Reviews 6

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Booklist Review

Almost everyone is familiar with the Vitruvian Man, an image created by Renaissance painter and inventor Leonardo da Vinci depicting a disrobed four-armed, four-legged man framed in a circle and square staring stolidly out at the viewer. The drawing, created by Da Vinci in 1487, has appeared on everything from coffee mugs to spacecraft and is often used by alternative-medicine purveyors as a symbol of homeopathic wellness. Few people may know, however, what motivated the artist to draft the illustration or what a rich history lies behind its creation. Lester, whose previous acclaimed book, The Fourth Part of the World (2009), told the riveting true story of the map that gave America its name, here provides an equally compelling survey of the social and artistic influences leading to Vitruvian Man's creation. Along the way, Lester dissects the popular Renaissance notion that man's God-given, perfect proportions justified using him as a template for architecture and paints a rare, vivid portrait of a younger, enthusiastic Leonardo, who promoted this idea. Highly recommended.--Hays, Carl Copyright 2010 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

ALBERT EINSTEIN wrote that the mind "always has tried to form for itself a simple and synoptic image of the surrounding world." During the Renaissance, when the ancient Greek idea of man as the measure of all things leapt to the forefront of intellectual life, the human body became a preferred object for this type of "synoptic" speculation. In a widely read treatise titled "Divina Proportione" (1509), the Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli echoed fashionable opinions of the day by declaring that our body measurements express "every ratio and proportion by which God reveals the innermost secrets of nature." Pacioli's close friend Leonardo da Vinci provided illustrations. In the richly rewarding history "Da Vinci's Ghost," Toby Lester, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, shows that Leonardo had long been fascinated by the concept of man as a microcosm of the universe. Before the Pacioli collaboration, the idea had inspired what has since become one of Leonardo's most famous images, "Vitruvian Man" (circa 1490), a careful line drawing of a nude male figure whose outstretched arms and legs fit perfectly in the bounds of a circle and a square. "Vitruvian Man" has entered popular culture as an emblem of Leonardo's genius - redolent of secret knowledge, referred to in the initial crime scene of "The Da Vinci Code" and reproduced on the face of the Italian one-euro coin. But as Lester points out, "almost nobody knows its story." The story, in some respects, is simple. The ancient Roman engineer Vitruvius opined in his magnum opus, "Ten Books on Architecture" (circa 25 B.C.), that a temple cannot be built properly "unless it conforms exactly to the principle relating the members of a well-shaped man." He then enumerated the ideal proportions of the male physique and posited that a man's outstretched body could be made to fit within a circle and a square. "Ancient philosophers, mathematicians and mystics had long invested those two shapes with special symbolic powers," Lester writes. "The circle represented the cosmic and the divine; the square represented the earthly and the secular." Leonardo's drawing, then, is an illustration of Vitruvius' theories, a fact that might well diminish one's estimation of the artist, as so many of the concepts at issue - the magical significance of basic shapes, the symbology of ratios - are scientifically unsound. But as Lester demonstrates through a wide-ranging reconstruction of the intellectual milieu of Renaissance humanism, Leonardo lived at a time when ancient texts commanded profound respect, and mastery of their nuances was considered an unequivocal sign of accomplishment. Attempting to curry favor with princely patrons like Duke Ludovico Sforza of Milan during the 1480s and '90s, Leonardo - a self-educated man who, as a professional artist, would have been classified by many as a tradesman - had to compete with people higher born, better connected and more impressively credentialed than himself. The portrait of Leonardo that emerges from Lester's book is of an intense intellectual striver who worked relentlessly to prove his worth, teaching himself Latin so he could study ancient thinkers, then demonstrating his absolute comprehension of their ideas through drawings like "Vitruvian Man." Leonardo did not merely absorb canonical opinions; more often than not, he transcended their limitations. In his famous notebooks, the private record of his researches, he often used classical sources as a point of departure, but as Lester notes, "when it comes to the details, he questions ancient authority and makes experience his guide." In that context, "Vitruvian Man" becomes discernible as an early point on Leonardo's learning curve, showing the tyro anatomist subordinating his firsthand observations of the human body to a privileged set of proportions. Eventually, once Leonardo grew surer in his knowledge, he became more concerned with accurately recording what he saw and following his insights to their logical conclusions - as can be seen in his later anatomical studies, some of the most remarkable ever made. Although "Vitruvian Man" hardly summarizes Leonardo's mature vision of the world, one idea embedded in the drawing did remain essential to his thinking: microcosmic man. This concept, whose myriad forms and permutations Lester traces across the broad expanse of Western history, has a fairly mixed track record. In the hands of the Renaissance physician Paracelsus, who believed people and the universe to be wholly composed of mercury, sulfur and salt, the results were unpredictable. But as the historian John Herman Randall wrote, "the effects of Leonardo's version of this intimate relation between man and nature were not scientifically disturbing." Leonardo believed that the fluid mechanics he observed in the bloodstream also applied to the flow of water in rivers and that the structure of human joints, muscles and limbs provided a template for complex man-made machinery - microcosmic thinking that could be verified empirically, in a proper scientific fashion. Seen against Leonardo's life-long journey of discovery, "Vitruvian Man" ultimately offers a "synoptic image" of the Renaissance itself. It captures, as Lester eloquently observes, "the intoxicating, ephemeral moment when art, science and philosophy all seemed to be merging, and when it seemed possible that, with their help, the individual human mind might actually be able to comprehend and depict the nature of . . . everything." Jonathan Lopez is editor at large of Art & Antiques.

Choice Review

Lester (contributing editor, The Atlantic; author, The Fourth Part of the World, CH, Sep'10, 48-0424) presents a well-written, fascinating account of perhaps the world's most well-known drawing, Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man. The book interweaves two stories. One concerns Leonardo the individual--his background, his environment, and the particular circumstances of the drawing itself. The other is a historical account tracing the underlying idea of the Vitruvian man through the centuries leading up to Leonardo. This drawing of a human figure fitted exactly into a square and circle. It graphically expresses their symbolic significance--the circle as cosmic and divine, the square as earthly and secular--and further demonstrates the power of art and geometry to illustrate such concepts as the microcosm and macrocosm, the ideal proportions of the human body, and the nature of beauty. Although the author diligently examines a wide variety of sources ranging from the sculptors of ancient Greece to the mystical visions of Hildegard von Bingen, the elegant mind and hand of Leonardo most perfectly embody the Renaissance hope that the powers of reason and observation will reveal humans' ultimate role in the universe. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-level undergraduates and above; general readers. R. M. Davis emeritus, Albion College

Kirkus Review

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.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal Review

Lester, a contributing editor to The Atlantic, goes back to ancient Rome and the influence of first-century architect Vitruvius for a history of Leonardo da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man," the famous image depicting a man fitting his body into a square and a circle by adjusting his arms and legs. Enlightening and carefully researched, this account of Leonardo's life and work reveals the human qualities of the self-taught genius as it discusses the scientific, theological, philosophical, and artistic beliefs of the early Renaissance that led to the drawing. VERDICT Narrator Stephen Hoye does a credible job of bringing this exciting historical period to life. Art enthusiasts, history buffs, and those wanting to know more about the great Leonardo, as well as the idea of man as a microcosm for the world, will appreciate this audiobook. ["A book for anyone who has wondered about the genius of Leonardo da Vinci and the Italian Renaissance," read the review of the Free Pr: S. & S. hc, LJ 2/1/12.-Ed.]-Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo (c) Copyright 2012. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. ix
Prologue: 1490p. 1
1 Body of Empirep. 13
2 Microcosmp. 42
3 Master Leonardop. 63
4 Milanp. 92
5 The Artist-Engineerp. 108
6 Master Buildersp. 126
7 Body and Soulp. 159
8 Portrait of the Artistp. 190
Epilogue: Afterlifep. 218
Further Readingp. 227
Notesp. 231
Works Citedp. 247
Acknowledgmentsp. 255
Permissions and Creditsp. 259
Indexp. 265