We will never be done reading about Leonardo Da Vinci, protean genius of the Italian renaissance. We have his rich body of paintings and drawings and sketches, and his sometimes ambiguous writings.
Like some of us, Leonardo was left-handed. Like few of us, he wrote backward, right to left, perhaps to avoid smudging his ink; perhaps because he liked looking at his work in mirrors; most likely because he was never in school and thus had no schoolmaster to correct his habits.
Leonardo moved from one interest to another, restless, questing, raising more questions than he could possibly address in one long lifetime. As a young man he was popular, successful and happy, and he had a “lifelong taste for jokes, light verse, ribald banter, riddles and fables, even party tricks. In his notebooks he recorded scores of jokes and anecdotes. “It was asked of a painter why,” one of them went, “since he made such beautiful figures which were but dead things, his children were so ugly. To which the painter replied that he made his pictures by day and his children by night.”
These insights into Leonardo come from the highly readable new book Da Vinci’s Ghost by Toby Lester.
His new work is breezily written and easy to read. It is based on deep research, vetted by an array of experts. Lester centers on one drawing – the most famous drawing in recent history, which depicts a man – perhaps Leonardo himself – placed inside a circle and a square. You’ve seen this four-armed four-legged ideal human in dozens of places. It is one of the most iconic images in our culture.
What is it really about, what does it mean? Where did it come from in the first place? What did it signify in Leonardo’s day, and what might it mean to us? These are some of the questions that Lester confronts in Da Vinci’s Ghost.
The image of man inside circle and square is now referred to as Vitruvian Man. The idea was first described by the 1st Century BC Roman engineer Vitruvius in his Ten Books on Architecture, but not drawn by him nor by the medieval scribes who transcribed his work.
It was an Italian theorist and builder, Franceso di Giorgio Martini of Siena, who “sketched...” in the margins of his own Treatise on Architecture “the first known picture that can legitimately be called Vitruvian Man,” Lester writes. The sketch was no idle fancy but “an attempt to sum up the essence of the human analogy, the idea... that “all the arts and all rules are derived from a well-composed and proportioned human body.”
Francesco and Leonardo knew each other, traveled together, questioned and learned from each other, even competed on the design of the Milan cathedral.
Da Vinci and others came to believe that by deeply understanding the universal proportions of humankind – down to the distance between elbow and shoulder, upper lip and nose, the ratio of the distance between thumb and palm and so forth – one could come to understand God. Since God had created the world and mankind, by understanding ourselves we would understand the universe.
Done right, every drawing, painting and building would be in harmony with the divine, clearly an exciting and worthy goal if it could possibly be achieved. Lester speculates because Leonardo “had observed and studied the natural world more thoroughly than anybody before him... perhaps he felt he was on the verge of attaining what had eluded others for so long: the godlike ability to see and understand the nature of the world as a whole.”
The figure of man inside circle and square can be understood as “a hinge moment in the history of ideas,” Lester writes, “the intoxicating, ephemeral moment when art, science, and philosophy all seemed to be merging, and when it seemed possible that, with their help, the individual human mind might actually be able to comprehend and depict the nature of ... everything.”
This is what you get with Leonardo, a seeker who flourished in exciting times, an artist and philosopher who sought the inexpressible. “Everything proceeds from everything,” he wrote in a notebook, “everything becomes everything, and everything can be turned into everything else... The earth is moved from its position,” he wrote, “by the weight of a tiny bird resting upon it.”
In Da Vinci’s Ghost Toby Lester conjures a living, breathing Leonardo. Meeting him here is unforgettable.
Da Vinci’s Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image by Toby Lester. Free Press hard cover $26.99. ISBN 9781439189238. Also available in audio versions.
Another excellent book on Leonardo, used by Lester as one of many sources is Leonardo da Vinci: Flights of the Mind by Charles Nicholl. Penguin paperback $18. ISBN 0143036122.