Profile, £16.99 Order for £15.29 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Da Vinci's Ghost, By Toby Lester
Wednesday 21 December 2011
Surely not another book about Leonardo! Can there really be space for it? Yes, because this one is more than the description of a great drawing, the so-called "Vitruvian Man", executed in 1490. It demonstrates, with skill and lightly worn erudition, how Leonardo, aged 38, came to make his drawing of the naked human body of a spread-eagled, mature young man (which may be a rare self-portrait of the artist) set within a circle and a square.
The drawing itself had not been widely seen until, as Lester reminds us, Kenneth Clark included an illustration of it in his classic study The Nude, published as recently as 1956. As ever with Leonardo, those who seek to profit by him tend to reach for the hyberboles without batting an eyelid because they know that we are too complacent to expect any different. Leonardo happens to be within spitting distance of the godhead, doesn't he?
So what exactly have we here? This book is most of all a very well written and lucidly argued piece of intellectual synthesis. Beginning with the Greeks, and then whisking us through the stories of Augustus Caesar, Vitruvius, the Romans and such medieval mystics as that celebrated visionary Hildegard of Bingen, Lester brings us to the point where Leonardo sets pen to paper.
What we learn most emphatically is that Leonardo was at the culminating point of a great tradition of human engagement with everything this image means. There are a huge number of early precedents for it, so many distant or less distant approximations and dry-runs. The drawing is building on so much thought and speculation, accurate and inaccurate, about the relationship between man and the cosmos, the microcosm and the macrocosm.
This is a story that describes the pursuit of the idea of the body as a model or an analogue of the world. It is the story of the transmission of architectural principles, and its relationship to cosmology and the evolution of religious and scientific thinking. But just as interesting as these chapters of intellectual overview are the biographical passages about Leonardo himself, and how he fits into the story of the creation of those two great cultural and mercantile rivals: Milan and Florence.
Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boymusic
Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Rape threats, death threats and a police investigation after video poking fun at an Islamic Party in Malaysia goes viral
- 2 Katie Hopkins attacked me on Twitter — so I reported her to the police for inciting racial hatred
- 3 Gamers confess the worst things they've done in The Sims
- 4 6-year-old writes ice cold Valentine's card to his stepmother
- 5 Syrian child photographed 'surrendering to camera because she thought it was a gun'
Sweeney Todd, theatre review: Emma Thompson returns to London stage after 25 years in absurdly deluxe ENO production
Tidal launch: The most pretentious lines from Alicia Keys' valedictory speech
Tidal: Jay Z's Spotify rival criticised for making wealthy artists even richer
Top Gear live to go ahead: Jeremy Clarkson to join Richard Hammond and James May... just don't call it Top Gear
Tidal: Madonna insists Jay Z's new streaming service is 'not about consumption and greed'
Katie Hopkins attacked me on Twitter — so I reported her to the police for inciting racial hatred
Street preacher quoting from the Bible fined for calling homosexuality an 'abomination'
Woman filmed launching racist tirade against men on the Tube for speaking in 'own lingo'
David Cameron calls Labour 'hopeless, sneering socialists' while announcing 7-day NHS plans
Revealed: Putin's army of pro-Kremlin bloggers
Katie Hopkins reported to the police for race hatred by Labour MP Simon Danczuk after tweet about Pakistani men