Toby Lester: An interview by Bob Morris

Toby Lester is a journalist, an editor, and an independent scholar. In addition to writing books, he is a longtime contributor to The Atlantic, for whom he has written extensively, on such topics as the reconstruction of ancient Greek music, the revisionist study of the Qur’an, and the attempt to change alphabets in Azerbaijan. Between 1995 and 2005 he worked for the magazine in a number of different editorial capacities — as a staff editor, as the executive editor of the website, as a senior editor, and as a managing editor. He has also served as the editor of Country Journal and the executive editor of DoubleTake. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic as well as Smithsonian, The Boston Globe, The American Scholar, The Wilson Quarterly, BBC News Magazine, and the London Times, as well as a number of anthologies, including the lead chapter of the recent New Literary History of America.

Prior to 1995, Lester worked in international relief and development: monitoring intifada-related activity in the West Bank, as a refugee-affairs officer for the United Nations; helping establish programs in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, as a Peace Corps country desk officer; and teaching English in a mountain school, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Yemen. He graduated from the University of Virginia in 1987 with degrees in English and French, and now lives in the Boston area with his wife and three daughters.

Lester comes from a family of writers. His father, James Lester, was a member of the first successful American Everest expedition, and is the author of Too Marvelous for Words (1994), the only biography of the jazz pianist Art Tatum. His mother, Valerie Lester, is the author of, among other works, Fasten Your Seat Belts: History and Heroism in the Pan Am Cabin (1995), and Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens (2004)—a biography of her great-great grandfather, Hablot Knight Browne, who was Charles Dickens’s principal illustrator. And his sister, Alison Lester, is the author of Locked Out (2007), a collection of short stories about expatriate life.

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Morris: Before discussing Da Vinci’s Ghost, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Lester: I’d have to say Cullen Murphy, who for years was the managing editor at The Atlantic and is now an editor-at-large for Vanity Fair. Much of what I’ve learned about writing and editing I’ve learned from Cullen.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Lester: Indeed there was. After finishing college, I worked for about seven years in international relief and development: first for the Peace Corps and then the United Nations. Ultimately, though, I found myself unsatisfied with what I was doing, and I decided to abandon that whole career. Instead, I took an unpaid internship at The Atlantic, which was a magazine I’d always admired. I thought I’d stay for two months, but I ended up staying almost ten years, and certainly wouldn’t have written my books had I not done so.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Lester: It prepared me well in a general way, just as a liberal-arts education should. I can’t point to anything specific in my education that has led me to where I am now, except that reading and writing, and the pursuit of ideas, was something that I began to indulge in seriously in college, and I haven’t ever stopped since.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Da Vinci’s Ghost. When and why did you decide to write it?

Lester: In the course of writing my first book, The Fourth Part of the World, I came across a number of medieval world maps that bore an uncanny visual likeness to Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, in that they depicted a human figure inside a circle and a square, and I began to wonder about the kinds of influences that prompted Leonardo to draw his famous picture. Like a lot of people, originally I’d thought he had summoned the picture up out of thin air, but in fact, as I learned, there were all sorts of fascinating and now forgotten precursors to the image. I thought it would be fun to explore them as a way of unpacking the kinds of information and meaning he invested in his picture.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Lester: The biggest one, I think, was that Vitruvian Man has not always been famous. In fact, it turns out that the picture was completely forgotten from the time of Leonardo’s death until 1770 — there are simply no references to it anywhere in the historical record. And for almost two centuries after that the picture still wasn’t widely known. Only in 1956, when Kenneth Clarke published The Nude and included the picture in that work, did it suddenly enter the ecosystem of popular culture and take on the iconic significance that we now take for granted.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read the book, who was Vitruvius and what is his relevance to Leonardo?

Lester: Vitruvius was a Roman architect who wrote the only treatise on architecture in the ancient world: the Ten Books on Architecture. The work surveyed ancient architectural theory and practice, and was the subject of great interest in the Renaissance, when Europeans began to revive the classics, and Italians, in particular, began to build in a neo-classical style. Of particular relevance to Vitruvian Man is a passage in the Ten Books that concerns the proportions of the ideal human figure, whom Vitruvius says can be inscribed in a circle and a square. Leonardo’s drawing is an illustration of that idea (which Vitruvius himself didn’t illustrate).

Morris: Also, please explain the significance of Francesco di Giorgio Martini’s Treatise on Architecture, Engineering, and the Art of War.

Lester: Francesco was a very famous and important architect and engineer from Siena, who was active at the same time Leonardo was. In his Treatise, he distilled a lot of ideas from Vitruvius’s Ten Books, and in particular produced the first illustration of Vitruvian Man, almost a decade before Leonardo. Leonardo knew Francesco and owned a copy of his Treatise, and it’s almost certain that he was nudged along toward his own drawing of Vitruvian Man by what he saw in Francesco’s Treatise.

Morris: Here’s a passage in the first chapter that caught my eye: “Based on the ideal human form, reaching out in all directions to encompass the known world, and aligned with the cosmic order, Augustus in the Prima Porta statue sets in stone a powerful new ideology of empire. His perfect form embodies Rome – and Rome’s perfect form, in turn, embodies the world.” For me, that passage provides a context for some of the most important insights you share in the book. Is that a fair assessment?

Lester: I think so. It’s hard to overestimate the powerful effect exerted on western culture by the Roman ideology of empire. And, as I try to show in the book, many elements of that ideology can be reduced to the kinds of thoughts about bodies — cosmic, human, architectural — that Vitruvius codified in his Ten Books, and that, by extension, Leonardo laid out in his drawing. When Vitruvius described his ideal man, in some ways he was describing not just an abstraction but a specific person: Caesar Augustus, the emperor to whom he dedicated his book.

Morris: Why do you suggest that St. Hildegard of Bingen is “one of the most extraordinary figures in medieval history”?

Lester: At a time when women didn’t often play an influential role in the advancement of science, religion, and the arts, Hildegard did it all. She was curious and extraordinarily well-informed, and the mysticism she’s most famous for is undergirded by a strong grounding in the works of classical and medieval authors. She wrote music and plays, she oversaw architectural projects, she devised secret languages, she illustrated, she investigated medical topics, and much more. She’s a little like Leonardo, actually, in the all-inclusive nature of her interests and talents.

Morris: In your opinion, what is the significance of Leon Battista Alberti’s works, notably On Paining and On Sculpture?

Lester: Alberti was one of the most important influences on Leonardo. Those books represented an effort on Alberti’s part to elevate painting and sculpture from crafts to arts — Arts, I should say. Alberti believed artists could capture elemental truths about human nature and the natural world, and, as a result, could even do philosophy. Leonardo took these ideas very much to heart.

Morris: Given the scope and depth of Leonardo’s interests, it is certainly understandable that while in Milan, he “plunged himself into his investigations. The whole business was intoxicating – and dizzying. The challenge was how to keep track of everything.” Here’s my question: In fact, how did Leonardo keep track of everything or at least attempt to do so?

Lester: Well, he failed, of course — but he failed spectacularly. The record of that failure — if that’s really the right word — can be found in the thousands of notebook pages of his that survive. He used his notebooks to organize his thoughts, to record data from his experiments, to keep track of things to do and people to seek out, to sketch ideas for paintings, inventions, and much more. The range of material they contain is astonishing: I doubt anything will ever rival it.

Morris: You suggest that Filippo Brunelleschi became a role model for Leonardo. How so?

Lester: Brunelleschi made his name by building the ingenious dome atop the cathedral of Florence. When Leonardo moved to Florence in the early 1480s, he began to get interested in architecture and engineering, and even entered a contest at the end of the decade to build a dome atop the cathedral of Milan. His submission looked a lot like Brunelleschi’s dome, which suggests that he imagined he might make a name for himself as the Brunelleschi of Milan.

Morris: In Chapter 8, you observe, “Most of Leonardo’s notebook sketches feel hasty and unfinished, less like the result of thought than like thought itself, captured in action. But Vitruvian Man is different.” Please explain.

Lester: Vitruvian Man is a very finely executed drawing, done much more carefully than most of the drawings in Leonardo’s notebooks. The picture clearly meant something important to him. It’s possible, in fact, that he prepared the image so carefully because he wanted to have it printed.

Morris: When concluding your brilliant book, you suggest that when people 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.” In your opinion, will Leonardo’s ghost continue to be unmistakably, unforgettably alive for centuries to come?

Lester: I think so. He’s such a fascinating character, and in so many ways his work captured elements of human experience that are at once universal and mysterious. He’s up there with Shakespeare, I think — he contained multitudes, and we’ll always be able to see new things in him and his work if we look carefully.

Morris: Of all that you learned from your research on Leonardo’s life and work, what do you consider most remarkable that you did not know before? Please explain.

Lester: What struck me most was just how backward-looking Leonardo was. Like everybody else, I was used to thinking of Leonardo as a visionary genius, which is absolutely true, but I was surprised to discover just how captive he was to medieval ways of thinking. We’re all captives of our own times, of course, but somehow the cult of Leonardo has managed to convince us all that Leonardo somehow transcended his own age. But the fact is that, despite his undeniable genius, in a lot of ways he was just as much a product of his times as the rest of us are of ours. And he was human, too, which people often like to overlook: he was stubborn, he procrastinated, he made mistakes, he missed deadlines, and he so immersed himself in his own investigations that he drove some people crazy. I liked getting that sense of him in my research, because it just makes him that much more interesting.

Morris: Here’s a hypothetical situation. If Leonardo were living today and asked to explain why there should be a substantial increase of support for the arts in U.S. public schools, what do you think he would stress?

Lester: That’s tough. But throughout his life he made the case for the importance of the visual. Images, he believed, were the most powerful way of capturing, condensing, and conveying information, and I think he’d argue that only through support of the arts can we allow the transmission of ideas through means other than just text.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Da Vinci’s Ghost, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Lester: Well, I wrote the book mainly just to give people a way of peering back in time at one of the most ingenious and creative minds of all time, so I suppose its value to business leaders might simply be as a study of the power of human creativity.

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Toby cordially invites you to check out the resources at this website.

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