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on 12 March 2012
You will know this drawing as well as you know the Mona Lisa: it's Vitruvian Man, standing inside his circle and his square with his four arms and four legs spread wide (`...the guy doing naked jumping jacks...'); but possibly, like me, you've never thought much about its pedigree. That it should have a book-long history, so riveting that when you've read it on the train it burns a hole in your bag; well, that really is the world's most famous drawing.
This is an extraordinarily interesting and exciting book. Toby Lester has spun a containing circle of his own, from his progressive researches, and from a journey made by Leonardo with the architect Giorgio Martini which probably sparked the production of the drawing. Overlaying this circle is the straight panel of history, leading from Vitruvius himself into the afterlife of Leonardo's fragile drawing, whisked about from owner to owner until acquired by the Accademia, Venice; and there in the midst of everything is Leonardo, staring at himself with sufficient intensity to transcribe his soul.
Within this diagrammatic structure whole worlds of scientific and philosophical exploration are crammed, and Lester, with his fluidly readable prose, enthusiasm, and tenacious digging after facts, is the ideal master to unpack it for us. He starts with the spiritual schema of the Lambeth Map (c.1300), with Christ standing in a square, embracing the circle of the globe; and the pagan geometry of the Roman architect Vitruvius, who saw `the proportions of ... temples [conforming] to the proportions of the ideal human body... [which] conformed to the hidden geometry of the universe'. Vitruvius was architect to the emperor Augustus, who sent his engineers marching across Europe to build `a perfect body of empire... controlled by a single head of state'; and in his Ten Books on Architecture (mid-20s BC), Vitruvius drew continual analogies between the human body, architectural proportion and the cosmos, and the defining geometrical elements of all three were the square and the circle.
The Ten Books disappeared into the whirlpool of history, re-emerging in the 8th century, when the demi-god Augustus had been replaced by the Son of God, `the head of the body, the church'. Christ became the metaphor for both micro- and macro- cosm, whilst scientific thought saw the anatomy of the body and the geography of the world as reflections of each other. These interlocking modes of thought with which Leonardo grew up were ideally adapted to stimulate his multifarious interests in natural phenomena, engineering, building and physical anatomy. He befriended the architect Bramante, with whom he discussed Vitruvius's ideas, as well as Francesco di Giorgio Martini, whose Treatise... was a contemporary, part-illustrated answer to the Ten Books.
While he pondered a way to raise the vast putative dome of Milan's cathedral, Leonardo prepared his own treatise, On the Human Body, measuring the relative proportions of every part, and attempting to locate the seat of the soul; he may also have worked with his friend Giacomo Andrea on a fully-illustrated version of the Ten Books. Out of this cauldron of ideas drifts a sheet of paper, slightly larger than A4, on which Leonardo has brought to life Vitruvius's description of the ideally-proportioned man, his navel at the centre of the circle which touches his outstretched fingers and toes, while a square with a different centre defines his armspan and height. This creative decentring simultaneously harmonizes both real and ideal anatomies, and both geometrical figures. At the same time, concentration has rendered the Man as `a kind of metaphysical self-portrait... a universal self-portrait... his ghost... unforgettably alive'. Compulsively readable.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 14 September 2012
I cannot recall another book in recent years that I 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) a copy of which Leonardo owned; 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 of Leonardo's Vitruvian Man (c. 1490) accompanied by his (as always) opious 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 latter 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 [begin italics] itself [end italics], 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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on 24 November 2011
It seems very fashionable to have the words 'Da Vinci ........' as a book title these days...

And Dan Brown, as long as you live, you will always have so much to answer for...

But, don't be put off by the apparently clichéd title of this little gem. For this is Toby Lester... and this is his second non-fiction book.

The 'Fourth Part of the World', his first book, for those who are in the know, is quite simply a work of brilliance. Witty, erudite and drenched in serious historical fact, it's slow-burning rise to five-star and must-read status remains the mark of a first-time writer filled with passion, honesty and the desire to put the traditionally academic (i.e boring) historians to shame. It was, and remains, a superb and magnificent debut.

To 'Da Vinci's Ghost' then. And it is, in essence, 270+ pages deconstructing Da Vinci's most iconic image ...'Vitruvian Man'. A grand tour from the earliest Roman origins, through the 'Middle Ages' to the 'Renaissance' and in all its permutations, here-in lies the centuries long journey of the image we all have taken for granted, but have never asked (beyond da Vinci's drawing) where it really came from.

Utterly devoid of padding, historical waffle and 'wikipedia' by-the-numbers cut-and-paste, this is an exceptional second helping from a writer who is truly getting into his stride.

Beautifully researched, written and edited ... and well illustrated too ... Lester has created a quality slice of historical non-fiction. Bravo.
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on 5 August 2013
Every picture tells a story. But what is the story behind the picture? My review about Toby Lester his first book started with the same line. To my humble opinion I could start with the same line.

Sometimes it looks so obvious: "Oh yeah, that picture". Until you start to ask questions like "why" and "how come". The Vitruvian Man is an iconic picture. But why? And how come? Toby Lester gives us the tale, the steps to and the journey to that picture. Lester his pleasant style of writing keeps you enjoyable attached to the story from the beginning to the end. Step by step he reveals the sources, the information, the influences that have led to the creation of The Vitruvian Man. It like you start to draw a circle that suddenly becomes a spiral. The book gives a rather fascinating compact insight in the development in the way of thinking in Renaissance's Humanism.

"The human body wasn't just designed according to the principles that governed the world. It was the world, in miniature." 'Da Vincis' Ghost', a story about how a picture symbolizes mankind groundbreaking shift in human's point of view: to human itself. Leonardo Da Vinci can be a proud man.

I'm looking forward to Toby Lester his next book.
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on 6 August 2015
Excellent stuff. A fragment of history's brush stroke becomes a marvellous multicoloured tapestry.
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