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Da Vinci's Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Imageby Toby Lester
Synopses & Reviews
Everyone knows the image. No one knows its story. This is the story of Vitruvian Man: Leonardo da Vinci's famous drawing of a man in a circle and a square. Deployed today to celebrate subjects as various as the nature of genius, the beauty of the human form, and the universality of the human spirit, the figure appears on everything from coffee cups and T-shirts to book covers and corporate logos. In short, it has become the world's most famous cultural icon, yet almost nobody knows anything about it.
Leonardo didn't summon Vitruvian Man out of thin air. He was playing with the idea, set down by the Roman architect Vitruvius, 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 therefore to imply that the human body was the world in miniature. This idea, known as the theory of the microcosm, was the engine that had powered Western religious and scientific thought for centuries, and Leonardo hitched himself to it in no uncertain terms. Yet starting in the 1480s he set out to do something unprecedented. If the design of the body truly did reflect that of the cosmos, he reasoned, then by studying its proportions and anatomy more thoroughly than had ever been done before — by peering deep into both body and soul — he might broaden the scope of his art to include the broadest of metaphysical horizons. He might, in other words, obtain an almost godlike perspective on the makeup of the world as a whole.
Vitruvian Man gives that exhilarating idea visual expression. In telling its story, Toby Lester weaves together a century-spanning saga of people and ideas. Assembled here is an eclectic cast of fascinating characters: the architect Vitruvius; the emperor Caesar Augustus and his "body of empire"; early Christian and Muslim thinkers; the visionary mystic Hildegard of Bingen; the book-hunter Poggio Bracciolini; the famous dome-builder Filippo Brunelleschi; Renaissance anatomists, architects, art theorists, doctors, and military engineers; and, of course, in the starring role, Leonardo himself — whose ghost Lester resurrects in the surprisingly unfamiliar context of his own times.
Da Vinci's Ghost is 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. Like Vitruvian Man itself, the book captures a pivotal time in the history of Western thought when the Middle Ages was giving way to the Renaissance, when art and science and philosophy all seemed to be converging as one, and when it seemed just possible, at least to Leonardo da Vinci, that a single human being might embody — and even understand — the nature of everything.
"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." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Every once in a while that rare book comes along that is not only wonderfully written and utterly compelling but also alters the way you perceive the world. Toby Lester's Da Vinci's Ghost is such a book. Like a detective, Lester uncovers the secrets of an iconic drawing and pieces together a magisterial history of art and ideas and beauty." David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z
"Like almost everyone, I've seen Leonardo's drawing of the nude man in the circle. But until I read Toby Lester's terrific new book, I had no idea about the story behind the picture — or even that there was a story behind the picture. 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's Ghost is as ingeniously crafted as one of its namesake's famous inventions. Like Leonardo himself, Toby Lester can take a single sheet of paper — in this case, the most famous drawing in all of art history — and make it teem with stories, characters, insights, and ideas." Adam Goodheart, author of 1861: A Civil War Awakening
Toby Lester, author of the award-winning "The Fourth Part of the World, "masterfully crafts yet another century-spanning saga of people and ideas in this epic story of Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci's iconic drawing of a man inscribed in a circle and a square. Over time, the nearly 550-year-old ink-on-paper sketch has transformed into a collective symbol of the nature of genius, the beauty of the human form, and the universality of the human spirit; it has also been replicated ad nauseam on mass-produced coffee cups, T-shirts, book covers, and corporate logos. With narrative flair and great intellectual sweep, Lester revives the rich history of Vitruvian Man and endows the drawing with renewed authenticity.
Not only did Leonardo subscribe to the idea--first conceived by the Roman architect Vitruvius--that the human body was a microcosm geometrically aligned with the divine circle and the earthly square, Lester reveals that by studying the body's proportions and anatomy, the artist also felt he could obtain a godlike perspective of the world's makeup. "Da Vinci's Ghost "captures a pivotal time in the history of Western thought, when the Middle Ages was giving way to the Renaissance, when art and science and philosophy all seemed to be converging as one, and when it seemed possible, at least to Leonardo da Vinci, that a single human being might embody--and even understand--the nature of everything.
Toby Lester cracks open Leonardo Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man in order to explore the cultural explosion of Renaissance Europe.
About the Author
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 World (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.
Table of Contents
Prologue. 1490 — Body of empire — Microcosm — Master Leonardo — Milan — The artist-engineer — Master builders — Body and soul — Portrait of the artist — Epilogue. Afterlife.
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