Da Vinci's Ghost: The untold story of Vitruvian Man by Toby Lester

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Da Vinci's Ghost: The untold story of Vitruvian Man by Toby Lester

Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: From the august builders of the Roman empire to the fountain-head of science, Toby Lester's book offers a fascinating insight into a crucial concept in the history of the European thought, linked to a life story of the archetypal Renaissance Man, Leonardo Da Vinci. Stimulating and interesting, it will forever change the way you look at the ubiquitous image of the naked bloke doing jumping jacks known as the Vitruvian Man.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: November 2011
Publisher: Profile Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1846684548

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As the number of popular non-fiction titles grows, the authors on the hunt for new-book material often use a concept approach, trying to come up with an USP for a new title. This uniqueness is often achieved by adopting an obscure subject, or an unusual perspective from which to view a popular theme.

Toby Lester's subject is far from obscure: quite possibly the most famous drawing in the world, Leonardo's Vitruvian Man. It does, however, offer an unusual lens through which to see much more than the untold story of the world's most famous drawing. Lester uses this lens to focus an enquiry that ranges far and wide. From Augustus' building of the Empire to the visions of the medieval mystics and the emergence of the Renaissance humanism, Da Vinci's Ghost is a tour de force, positively bursting with information presented in this eruditely conversational tone that is now de rigueur in popular non-fiction accounts.

Despite its apparent reliance on a somewhat gimmicky subject, Da Vinci's Ghost is more than just a brilliantly put together collection of fascinating factoids and speculative narrative. It charts a cultural history of a powerful meme that sat at the centre of the Western European thought for over a thousand years: the idea of a microcosm. Since the Greek antiquity the human figure was considered to contain – in a very literal sense – the measure of all things. This belief did not start afresh with the Renaissance humanists, but was very much in evidence in the medieval period. Man was created in God's image and thus was not only the source of all harmonious design but contained in himself the reflection of the entire, God-ordered universe. By studying – and understanding – the human, one could hope to understand the whole world in its physical and spiritual aspects.

Lester links a brief biography of this idea with the life of Leonardo Da Vinci: the artists, natural philosopher and thinker extraordinaire, weaving both into a story of Leonardo's rise to prominence and development of his ideas.

I liked the Da Vinci's biographical sections less than the contextual ones, not so much because of any problems with the content and more because of an annoyingly repetitive manner of presentation, with might as well have beens and surely must have dones recurring ad nauseam and occasionally patronising explanatory asides.

There is a lot of context – some might call it padding or digressions - in Da Vinci's Ghost, but it's that context that makes the scant 250 pages of Lester's book enjoyable and stimulating. Just as Leonardo's mind was prone to flights of interested fancy that covered anything from anatomy to military engineering, Lester's book provides unexpected insights into ideas from the ideal body canon to empire building to the sources of European science. The last one was for this reader the most important: Da Vinci's Ghost made me realise that what is probably the most successful creation of the Western mind sprung as much from the antique interest in the canonical bodies and Aristotlean early empiricism as from the very Christian concept of a God knowable in his Creation, and its sister notion of an individual human mind – created in the image of the Absolute - being capable of achieving such knowledge.

Such blatant specism is unpopular and morally suspicious nowadays as we are relentlessly reminded of the destructive impact, the violent streak and the general wickedness of humanity, often presented as a cancerous growth on the face of the Earth. One could not move further from the notion of the microcosm. And yet, this virulent anti-humanism that is so strong in the current zeitgeist is perhaps just a dark reversal of the human-as-measure of all things. We still perceive ourselves as special and rather significant in the greater scheme of things. Even in a perverse negative, the meme embodied by the Vitruvian Man lives on.

Leonardo's influence is explored in Leonardo's Legacy: How Da Vinci Reinvented the World by Stefan Klein. If you liked reading about Da Vinci and his architectural inspiration, you might like an account of the masterpiece of this other great Renaissance man, Michelangelo in St Peter's (Wonders of the World) by Keith Miller. Roman world and the reasons for its demise are analysed in The Ruin of the Roman Empire by James J O'Donnell.

Buy Da Vinci's Ghost: The untold story of Vitruvian Man by Toby Lester at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Da Vinci's Ghost: The untold story of Vitruvian Man by Toby Lester at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Da Vinci's Ghost: The untold story of Vitruvian Man by Toby Lester at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Da Vinci's Ghost: The untold story of Vitruvian Man by Toby Lester at Amazon.com.


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