A knowledgeable and thoroughly engaging look at one painting by Leonardo Da Vinci.
In "Da Vinci's Ghost," Toby Lester has pulled off a seemingly impossible feat: producing an entire book -- and a thoroughly engaging one at that -- about a single drawing. Of course, it helps that the drawing is by Leonardo Da Vinci and is one we have all seen on books, posters and logos, in "The Da Vinci Code" and even on "The Simpsons": It's "the guy doing naked jumping jacks" inside a circle and a square. Its formal name is Vitruvian Man.
Today, Vitruvian Man is often used as a feel-good image to trot out whenever we want to convey general approval of human creativity or the grandeur of the human spirit. But to its Renaissance audience, the drawing's meanings were substantially more precise, philosophical and profound. "Da Vinci's Ghost" unpacks these meanings through two narratives, one individual and biographical, the other collective and philosophical/historical.
In one story, Lester traces Leonardo's biography from his birth in 1452 through 1490, when his Vitruvian Man is believed to have been created. The portrait that emerges pays homage to the individual genius -- the essentially modern and scientific visionary of popular imagination -- but delineates equally clearly a medieval thinker with a derivative imagination that borrowed freely (and yes, outright stole) from every source available.
The second story, the philosophical/historical narrative, alternates with Leonardo's biography, which makes superb sense because the historical narrative, too, is in essence a biography, the life story of a concept. Around the mid-20s B.C., Vitruvius, a Roman army engineer, produced the first comprehensive guide to architecture the world had ever known, "Ten Books on Architecture." In it, he described what has come to be known as Vitruvian Man: A perfectly shaped man inside a circle and a square, part divine and part human, who is the measure of all things and is quite literally a microcosm of the cosmos.
In other words, if we want to understand the planets or the oceans, the proper construction of a temple or the design of an empire, we can understand it through proper knowledge of the human body. "Da Vinci's Ghost" traces the evolution of this idea from its birth through the Renaissance, creating "a saga of grand proportions, spanning centuries, continents and disciplines." It's an absorbing tale that integrates philosophy, geography, cartography, architecture, anatomy and even the mysticism of Hildegard of Bingen.
In the wrong hands, this ambitious undertaking could be dry, impenetrable and pedantic. Luckily, it is in the thoroughly capable hands of Toby Lester, a master of connected thinking whose sparkling prose makes medieval anatomical and architectural theory not only comprehensible but downright fascinating.
Although they begin centuries apart, Lester's two narratives converge in 1490, with Leonardo's Vitruvian Man: the human body viewed anatomically, geographically and cosmographically, a single drawing that contains multitudes. "Man," Leonardo wrote, "is a model of the world"; "Da Vinci's Ghost" is an exhilarating guide to the noble Renaissance ideal that a single human mind can grasp the nature of everything, and a single drawing can communicate it.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.