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Da Vinci's Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image [Hardcover]

Toby Lester
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 7 2012
In Da Vinci's Ghost, critically acclaimed historian Toby Lester tells the story of the world’s most iconic image, the Vitruvian Man, and sheds surprising new light on the artistry and scholarship of Leonardo da Vinci, one of history’s most fascinating figures.

Deftly weaving together art, architecture, history, theology, and much else, Da Vinci's Ghost is a first-rate intellectual enchantment.”Charles Mann, author of 1493

Da Vinci didn’t summon Vitruvian Man out of thin air. He was inspired by the idea originally formulated by the Roman architect Vitruvius, who suggested that the human body could be made to fit inside a circle, long associated with the divine, and a square, related to the earthly and secular. To place a man inside those shapes was to imply that the human body could indeed be a blueprint for the workings of the universe. Da Vinci elevated Vitruvius’ idea to exhilarating heights when he set out to do something unprecedented, if the human body truly reflected the cosmos, he reasoned, then studying its anatomy more thoroughly than had ever been attempted before—peering deep into body and soul—might grant him an almost godlike perspective on the makeup of the world.

Written with the same narrative flair and intellectual sweep as Lester’s award-winning first book, the “almost unbearably thrilling” (Simon Winchester) Fourth Part of the World, and beautifully illustrated with Da Vinci's drawings, Da Vinci’s Ghost follows Da Vinci on his journey to understanding the secrets of the Vitruvian man. It captures a pivotal time in Western history when the Middle Ages were giving way to the Renaissance, when art, science, and philosophy were rapidly converging, and when it seemed possible that a single human being might embody—and even understand—the nature of the universe.

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Review

"Every once in a while that rare book comes along that is not only wonderfully written and utterly compelling but also alters the way you perceive the world. Toby Lester’s “Da Vinci's Ghost” is such a book. Like a detective, Lester uncovers the secrets of an iconic drawing and pieces together a magisterial history of art and ideas and beauty."—David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z

"In reconstructing the forgotten story of Vitruvian Man, Toby Lester, a canny decoder of  images and a great storyteller, sheds new light on the enigmatic Leonardo DaVinci."—Chris Anderson, Editor in Chief of Wired, author of The Long Tail and Free

"Erudite, elegant, enthralling. This is a wonderful book. Toby Lester understands, and makes us understand, the unique intensity with which Leonardo saw the world. He saw it not only in its infinite diversity but also as an impression of his own self, an explanation of what it means to be human. Hence Vitruvian Man."—Sister Wendy Beckett, author of The Story of Painting

Da Vinci’s Ghost is both a beautiful and a brilliant book. After reading Lester’s account, you will never be able to look at Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man the same way again.”—Howard Markel, author of An Anatomy of Addiction

Da Vinci’s Ghost is as ingeniously crafted as one of its namesake’s famous inventions. Like Leonardo himself, Toby Lester can take a single sheet of paper—in this case, the most famous drawing in all of art history—and make it teem with stories, characters, insights, and ideas.”—Adam Goodheart, author of 1861: The Civil War Awakening

“Like almost everyone, I've seen Leonardo's drawing of the nude man in the circle. But until I read Toby Lester's terrific new book, I had no idea about the story behind the picture—or even that there *was* a story behind the picture. Deftly weaving together art, architecture, history, theology and much else, Da Vinci's Ghost is a first-rate intellectual enchantment.”—Charles Mann, author of 1493

"Like Da Vinci's famous drawing, Toby Lester's book is a small wonder—a work of brilliant compression that illuminates a whole world of life and thought. Lester proves himself to be the perfect guide to the Renaissance and beyond—affable, knowledgeable, funny. Leonardo's Virtruvian Man turns out to be a road map that can take us to remarkable places—once you learn how to read it."—Cullen Murphy, editor at large, Vanity Fair

“One of the great contributions of books like this is to keep the reader from taking for granted a familiar object. Lester’s detective story has a satisfying number of insights…covers a broad swath of history…[and] braids intellectual threads—philosophy, anatomy, architecture, and art—together in a way that reaffirms not only Leonardo’s genius but also re-establishes the significance of historical context in understanding great works of art.”—Publishers Weekly, STARRED Review

Praise for Toby Lester's Fourth Part of the World

“Marvelously imaginative, exhaustively researched. . . . Guiding the reader Virgil-like through the Age of Discovery, Lester introduces a chronologically and conceptually vast array of Great Men (Columbus, Vespucci, Polo, Copernicus, et al.), competing theories, monastic sages, forgotten poets, opportunistic merchants, unfortunate slaves, and more. That he relates it all so cleanly and cogently—via elegant prose, relaxed erudition, measured pacing, and purposeful architecture—is a feat. That he proffers plentiful visual delights, including detailed views of the legendary document, is a gift. This map, Lester writes, ‘draws you in, reveals itself in stages, and doesn’t let go.’ Nor does this splendid volume.”The Atlantic


“An intellectual detective story.  By using the [Waldseemüller] map as a lens through which to view a nexus of myth, imagination, technology, stupidity, and imperial ambition, Lester has penned a provocative, disarming testament to human ambition and ingenuity.”The Boston Globe


“Perfect for [somebody who] loves biography and nonfiction, particularly idea-driven books like Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel.The Wall Street Journal


"Lester pulls on the threads of Waldseemüller's map and finds an extraordinary braid of influences. [He] builds a cumulative tale of rich, diverse influences that he juggles with gathering speed and showmanship until the whir of detail coalesces into an inspired, imaginative piece of mapmaking.”San Francisco Chronicle

“One of this year's most captivating and richly detailed histories."The News Tribune


“Lester captures the passion, curiosity and, at times, the hubris behind the European explorations. His real interest lies in the evolution of Europeans' perception of the world, as reflected by their maps, an approach that works splendidly. To mid-millennial Europeans, there was nothing over the western sea but mystery and legends about islands, monsters and mythical beings. It took courage to sail off into that unknown, and Lester's book offers a clear survey of how people came to understand the world in which they lived.”The Washington Post


“Fascinating. Without Toby Lester's fine book, the Waldseemüller Map might remain an interesting historical footnote. Instead, one now understands the creation of the map as a world-changing moment, "a birth certificate for the world that came into being in 1492 -- and a death warrant for the one that was there before.’"Minneapolis Star-Tribune


“Maps – intricate, absurd, fantastical, ridiculous – fill this beautiful book, reinforcing Lester’s thesis that they tell us as much about their makers as our surroundings. The heretofore unknown fourth part of the world was an enormous, unspoiled continent whose natural resources could be exploited and whose natives could be converted, sold into slavery, or exterminated. Like any train wreck, the controversies of this historical moment fascinate.”The Christian Science Monitor


“Compelling ... allows us to see how a group of European Renaissance scholars 'managed to arrive at a new understanding of the world as a whole.' Mr. Lester bravely ventures where few have gone before."The New York Times


“Thrilling. Vital to anyone interested in knowing the story of this country. An elegant and thoughtful account of the one morsel of cartographic history that would shake the world's foundations. [Lester's] is a rare and masterly talent."—Simon Winchester, author of, most recently, The Man Who Loved China

About the Author

Toby Lester is the author of The Fourth Part of the World (2009) and a contributing editor to The Atlantic. A former Peace Corps volunteer and United Nations observer, he lives in the Boston area with his wife and three daughters. His work has also appeared on the radio program This American Life.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By Robert Morris HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
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.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great Read! Feb. 18 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Readable - over to cover!
Great book for the history/science reader or artist - geniuses are not a new phenomena!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  48 reviews
102 of 106 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Complex Story Vividly Told Feb. 7 2012
By las cosas - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
Little is known about Leonardo Da Vinci's drawing known as Vitruvian Man (drawing of naked man, limbs spread, square in a circle...you know). The author argues that it is possibly the most recognized drawing in existence, but it lives within a folder locked away in Venice, and little is known about its history. Seldom seen, little understood, yet an immediately recognizable iconic reference to the Italian Renaissance and its humanist ideals. Lester sets for himself a difficult double quest, and I believe he has fulfilled each fairly well.

This quest is to explain the importance of Vitruvian Man by placing it in historical prospective, and also explaining how it fits into the life of Leonardo. There are three main hurdles the author must overcome in order to succeed in this quest.

The first hurdle is that the author attempts to tell a complex story in a very, very short book: 225 pages plus another 70 pages of notes, index, etc. The second is that it assumes that the reader knows no European history, and thus absolutely anything he wants to include of historical significance, he must explain. Medieval Europe, guilds, Augustus, Hildegarde of Bingen. Long list of fairly basic historical facts needing definitions, not much space in which to accomplish this. Third hurdle, we know almost nothing of Leonardo's life outside what he left in his notebooks. This requires a seemingly endless number of 'it is probable that' 'the odds are good that'...

Why I like this book is the audacity of its author to set himself such a difficult task, and to work so hard, and write so well, in making this difficult and important story known, and to write it with a vibrancy that makes you want to read more, to follow the endless minor stories he introduces with the aid of his extensive Works Cited section.

An example of the virtuosity of his descriptions is that he succinctly explains Ptolemy's latitude/longitude plotting of coordinates and then neatly ties this to Alberti's mapping of body coordinates.

Because the author covers such an insane swatch of history with an insistence on explaining everything, those who have some grounding in the applicable history will find many of the explanations annoyingly simplistic. Description of Medieval Europe? "Europe as a whole had devolved into a grimly feudal place" and "so-called Dark Ages."

If you enjoyed Brunelleschi's Dome and The Swerve, you will most probably also find this book engaging.

KINDLE UPDATE: The original Kindle version of the book lacked the plates. The publisher recently updated the Kindle version, eliminating this problem. If you purchased the plate-less version, you must contact Kindle Customer Service to receive the updated version. Deleting and downloading will simply download another copy of the plate-less version.
15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Simply Terrific! Feb. 12 2012
By Alan Cantor - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
A gem of a book! Lester takes strands from history, theology, art, science, architecture, and medicine and weaves a tapestry that had me turning the pages. I enjoyed every word and illustration. And Lester creates a memorable - and economical - portrait of Leonardo and his times.

I loved The Fourth Part of the World: An Astonishing Epic of Global Discovery, Imperial Ambition, and the Birth of America, and now I loved Da Vinci's Ghost: both books will really stick with me.

I can't wait so see what Lester does next. I rank him with Charles Mann, Adam Hochschild, and John M. Barry on my list of brilliant and thought-provoking nonfiction writers and thinkers.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bravo! Feb. 12 2012
By Dianne Hales - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
With rigorous research, inspired insight and graceful writing, Toby Lester brings to light--and life--an unexplored dimension of Leonardo's genius. A tour de force for lovers of art, science, history, Italy and great story-telling. Yes, the plates add much to the text, and I highly recommend the paper rather than the digital edition. I find myself going back and savoring them again and again.

La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why has no one else ever tried to tell the story of the Vitruvian Man...until now? Sept. 14 2012
By Robert Morris - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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."
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Da Vinci's Ghost is Insubstantial, Immaterial, Illusory Nov. 28 2012
By M. Williams - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
One of the worst books I've read in a long time. I wouldn't have finished it but I was reading it for a book group, so I did. It's disorganized, the writing prosaic in the extreme, and, like _The Swerve_, a book it strongly resembles -- in fact, I am starting to feel that this sort of forced enlargement of one small historical work or event is the template for non-fiction these days -- it fails to make its point, which, based on the subtitle, is that Leonardo "created the world in his own image" -- because he sketched Vitruvian Man based on proportions in a 1st-century B.C. text? There is so much conjecture and supposition throughout this book that eventually it felt to me that there was little of substance here ... like a ghost.
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