Da Vinci’s Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image
by Toby Lester (Yemen 1988–90)
$26.99 (hardback), $16.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962–64)
TOBY LESTER’S DELIGHTFUL BOOK about Leonardo da Vinci reminds me of my mother-in-law. Barbara Wheaton is both a renowned professional food historian and an accomplished amateur art historian who, on a recent family trip to Paris, told the rest of us in her clear-headed and often witty way everything we needed to know about everything we saw, heard or tasted, but never more than we wanted to know. Like Barbara, Toby Lester is the best kind of traveling companion, especially when visiting places we’ve probably been to before, like Paris, or in Lester’s case ancient Rome and Renaissance Italy. Who would have thought that surprises about these places were still in store, or that there was a writer who could get to the point so deftly and entertainingly in revealing them?
It is Lester’s idea that Vitruvian Man, Leonardo’s famous drawing of a beautifully formed nude male in a square and a circle, is basically a self-portrait. Lester makes his case with a variety of circumstantial evidence, not least of which is the great artist-inventor-architect-natural philosopher’s long-held belief that the human being is a microcosm for the universe. To know oneself is to begin to know everything.
It was Vitruvius, while writing the Roman empire’s first manual on architecture for Augustus Caesar, who rigorously advanced the “age-old philosophical conceit: that the human body was a scaled-down version of the world or cosmos as a whole.” The squares and circles in Vitruvius’s public buildings and military installations weren’t just pleasing to the eye. “The circle represented the cosmic and the divine; the square represented the earthly and the secular.” Vitruvius described in prose the notion of placing the human form in a square and a circle, and for 1500 years various artists rendered the idea graphically but not always artfully. Then Leonardo brought his mastery to the theme and produced the drawing that’s become iconic in linking art, beauty, nature and humanity.
Lester’s book is full of ideas and social history, but it’s also a good short biography of Leonardo. His genius was evident early, as were his good looks and pleasing personality, which he was not shy about using to gain attention and commissions. Two traits held him back at first. One was his tardiness. He was so easily distracted by his studies of all natural phenomena that he missed deadlines and annoyed court and mercantile VIPs. His homosexuality also got him in trouble. Leonardo left Florence for Milan earlier than he might have because of a sodomy charge involving a notorious rent boy. Lester’s picture of gay Florence — a real subculture existed among the artists and craftsmen — is not the one we got from MGM when I was growing up in the fifties. (Women, by the way, aren’t mentioned much at all in the book. In the societies described, they didn’t count for much except as Madonnas and whores.)
There’s some wonderful stuff here on Leonardo’s anatomical studies. The dissection of human bodies was just coming into use in the early Renaissance. But the practitioners doing the dissections in operating “theaters” — where the term theater comes from — constantly recited from Greek and Roman texts that were packed with misinformation. It made Leonardo crazy with annoyance and led to his own accurate studies in human anatomy. His one blunder was locating in the brain what he believed to be the seat of “sensus communis,” common sense.
The term “Renaissance Man” is one we sometimes toss around these days to describe somebody who is celebrated for displaying a number of talents. Toby Lester shows us what a real Renaissance Man was, a man who advanced the causes of art and science by leaps and bounds and did it with grit, boundless intelligence and vast spirit.
Other surprises: Leonardo played the lute like a pro, regaled people with his bawdy wit and light verse, and was a vegetarian. It hurts that none of us will ever get to sit next to him on a plane.
Richard Lipez writes the Don Strachey private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson.