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.
tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods
tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas
comedy Erm...he seems to be back
tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa
tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 PlayStation and Xbox hacked by Lizard Squad
- 2 The 'Black Museum': After 150 years, public set to see exhibits from police’s grisly crime museum
- 3 British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
- 4 Vagina canoe artist defends herself over ‘obscenity’ charges
- 5 The Queen’s speech 2014: Recap and Twitter reaction to Game of Thrones reference
EastEnders Christmas special, review: Brilliant Danny Dyer glues you to your seat
Felicity Jones on being Stephen Hawking's wife in The Theory of Everything: 'I didn't want her to be a saint'
Game of Thrones season five: First preview clip shows a beardy Tyrion, a moody Cersei and a distressed Arya
Doctor Who series 9: Jenna Coleman staying on for whole season as Clara Oswald
The Interview finally gets US release after Sony hack and terror threats – but reviews of North Korea satire are mixed
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Rozanne Duncan: Ukip expels councillor for 'jaw-dropping' comments made in BBC TV interview
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
BBC director Danny Cohen: Rising UK antisemitism makes me feel more uncomfortable than ever
Alex Salmond has 'broken his word to the Scottish people' says Scottish Lib Dem leader