A Ghostly Self-Portrait

Toby Lester's 'Da Vinci’s Ghost'

by Lara Killian

26 March 2012

cover art

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

Toby Lester

(Free Press)
US: Feb 2012

An entire book, about a single iconic image. Leonardo may have drafted the most famous version of a well-proportioned human figure inside a circle inside a square, but he was far from the first. Author Toby Lester takes the reader on a well-researched, meandering journey that begins during the Roman Empire and illuminates a string of connections between art, architecture, the beginnings of modern medicine, and the church, culminating in the Vitruvian Man, as we know him.

The concept of man as a microcosm, the entire world somehow concealed inside his fragile form, is centuries older than Leonardo da Vinci, born 1452. Leonardo’s own study of human proportion and the connection between the systems at work in the human body and those operating in the greater cosmos is based on a number of earlier drawings that he would have seen in various rare tomes as he educated himself about drawing, building, and religion. Lester cobbles together descriptions and images of man inside a circle inside a square, whether a divine incarnation, or a prototype human, that still exist in ancient manuscripts. The original concept has been traced back through time to Vitruvius (80–70 BC - c. 15 BC).

Vitruvius was a Roman soldier in the first decades of the Common Era. An engineer responsible for ensuring that the Roman army’s machines of war stayed in working order, after retiring from active duty Vitruvius felt that he hadn’t accomplished enough to make a lasting name for himself. Standing on the sidelines as Caesar Augustus remade the Roman Empire in his own image after the deaths of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, Vitruvius recognized the importance of architecture in Roman society as “the defining human art”. Architecture lays out homes for communities and brings them together in temples, “revealing the will of the gods and aligning the man-made with the divine.” Vitruvius set out to write about the defining principles of architecture as they related to everything else, and his Ten Books became a seminal work for centuries to come.

Lester guides the story back and forth from Leonardo to earlier or sometimes contemporary aspects of culture, religion, and science that would have influenced him. Moving forward to the early Renaissance, as a teenager Leonardo was fortunately placed in an artist’s workshop in the very heart of the cultural shift, able to take full advantage of local arts patronage. A tremendously inquisitive and fast learner, Leonardo ended his apprenticeship in Florence earlier than most and went into business with his old master. His new freedom allowed him to experience more fully what the city had to offer, and the hot water he landed in as a result with the authorities was one likely reason he began to look further afield for where to make his mark. Another issue was his constant inability to finish projects—not a valuable quality in an extremely gifted artist entrusted with many high profile artistic ventures.

Perhaps it was Leonardo’s informal schooling, but he was always questioning things for himself, wanting to see how things worked with his own eyes, and unwilling to accept that certain things were so simply because “great ancient and medieval authorities” said so. Lester writes, “Leonardo—the unlettered craftsman, the artist-engineer, the playful tinkerer, the mixer of potions, the visual thinker—recoiled at this idea” and kept stacks of journals filled with copious notes about his observations and continuing questions. He also made frequent mention of particular experts—whether living or preserved in texts—who might be able to answer his questions, illuminate his thinking, or point him to the next available expert.

I found the chapter outlining the linkages between doctors and architects particularly fascinating. With cathedrals laid out in a manner that mimics the human form—the head the altar, the spine the knobby connecting blocks along the interior apex of the vaulted roof, the arms the naves, the skin of glass and stone—it’s not inconceivable that someone who understood well how to set a bone might have some insight into the mechanism that would allow a keystone to hold an arch together. Leonardo made the argument for the need for a ‘doctor-architect’ to understand the needs of the ‘invalid cathedral’ in Milan: long-standing conflict between the cathedral planners, builders, and the engineer charged with raising a central cupola to align with community expectations rather than the laws of physics delayed holding up construction of the great Gothic structure. Medicine and architecture are both disciplines that require a core understanding of design.

From Vitruvius’ Ten Books, which gathered together the fragments about design theory and engineering he had collected through his career, to Leonardo’s overlapping interests in just about every system under the sun, the quest to represent the proportions and scale that define the ideal man as well as the geometry of architecture is a fascinating one. Lester’s storytelling manner connects points and personages in history that relate to each other in mysterious ways, always coming back to the central figure of Leonardo and his quest to understand the inner workings of everything around him.

Lester has written a number of feature articles for The Atlantic magazine. His previous book, The Fourth Part of the World 2009), is about the map that gave America its name, and the makers that created it along with a new understanding about the land masses that comprise our planet. Lester called his new book Da Vinci’s Ghost because he sees the image of the Vitruvian Man as a ghostly self portrait, a continuing way for Leonardo to be present in contemporary culture.

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


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