Da Vinci’s Ghost: A book review by Bob Morris

Da Vinci’s Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image
Toby Lester
Free Press/Simon & Schuster Imprint (2012)

Why has no one else ever tried to tell the story of the Vitruvian Man…until now?

I cannot recall another book in recent years that I have enjoyed reading more than I did Toby Lester’s account of how “Leonardo created the world in his own image.” In fact, I have twice re-read it before sharing my thoughts about it. The question that serves as this review’s title was posed by Lester and he then set about to do what no one had done before. “On the surface, the story seems straightforward enough. Writing at the dawn of the Roman imperial age, Vitruvius proposed that a man 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.” Indeed, with the skills of a storyteller and the relentless curiosity of a cultural anthropologist as well as the erudition of an art historian, Lester enables his reader to return in time to an age and an era unlike any other before or since: the Italian Renaissance and its human fulfillment, Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (1452-1519). Lester’s narrative is developed on two separate but related levels: a sequence of events from ancient Rome until Leonardo’s time, and, key developments in Leonardo’s life and work, including one drawing (more about it later).With regard to the meaning and significance of this book’s title, consider these observations with which Lester concludes the book: “Brought into being more than a millennium ago and born of concepts far older still the picture [i.e. Leonardo’s drawing of Vitruvian Man] contains whole lost worlds of information, ideas, stories, and patterns of thought. But look the subject directly in the eye, and you’ll also see Leonardo da Vinci, staring out at you from the page. The man himself died centuries ago, but his ghost – timeless, watchful, and restless – remains unmistakably, unforgettably alive.”In addition to Lester’s lively as well as eloquent narrative, I also appreciate the provision of dozens of illustrations to which he refers and for which he creates a context, a frame of reference. For example the 53 “Figures” that include churches and the human body from Francesco di Giorgio Martini’s Treatise (c. 1481-1484) of which Leonardo owned a copy; Christ as a microcosm from a 12th century German manuscript; Leonardo’s earliest surviving drawing (c. 1473); two of Leonardo’s studies of the human head (1489); the first known drawing of Vitruvian Man from Martini’s Treatise (c. 1481-84); Vitruvian Man from the Ferrara manuscript; the same figure superimposed on Leonardo’s drawing; and a possible copy of a since lost study of human motion by Leonardo (c. 1560). There are also nine full-color plates inserted between Pages 138 and 139, and the last is a reproduction Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man (c. 1490) accompanied by his copious notes.

These are a few of the dozens of passages that caught my eye:

“As an architect with plenty of hands-on experience, Vitruvius recognized that singular challenge confronted the Romans if they wanted to build a body of empire based on the natural order. It would have to be assembled piece by piece, according to a set of standard measurements that could be understood and used by engineers and construction workers all over the world.” (Page 36)

“The earliest illustrations of the human body as a microcosm, which date to he twelfth century amount to little more than adaptations of the diagrams that had long appeared in manuscripts by such writers as Isidore of Seville and the Venerable Bede (Plate 3). Soon, however, writers and illustrators began to describe a set of almost biological relationships between parts of the heavens and the human body.” (55)

“It’s impossible to say when Leonardo first embraced the idea of the artist as a kind of creator-god, but the idea was one he would carry with him throughout his life…The idea had an ancient pedigree…The Neoplatonists in Florence, who emerged as a cultural force in the Katter half of the fifteenth century, latched onto this analogy between the human and the divine…Human nature, [Marsilio Ficino] wrote, ‘possesses in itself images of the divine things upon which it depends.’” (85)

“Leonardo didn’t just model his notebooks on the sketchbooks of artists and engineers. Her also turned to another source for inspiration: the commonplace book, designed to preserve not pictures but words…notebooks, that is, in which [students] collected excerpts from their reading, organized not by author or book but by subject.” (117)

“Most of Leonardo’s notebook sketches feel hasty and unfinished, less like the result of thought that like the thought itself, captured in action. But Vitruvian Man is different.  Leonardo drew the picture with uncharacteristic precision, almost as though he was carefully preparing it to be printed.” (213)

By the time Lester’s readers arrive at the book’s conclusion, they will have learned a great deal about the evolution of perspectives on an ancient drawing, to be sure, but they will also appreciate even more than perhaps they once did how important Leonardo continues to be to the evolution of thought in so many dimensions of human curiosity. Hence the appropriateness of Toby Lester’s suggestion that, when they gaze at Plate 9 that precedes Page 139, “you’ll also see Leonardo da Vinci, staring out at you from the page. The man himself died centuries ago, but his ghost – timeless, watchful, and restless – remains unmistakably, unforgettably alive.”

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