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Inventing Leonardo, Again

THE GREAT ART historian Kenneth Clark described Leonardo da Vinci as the “Hamlet of art history, whom each of us must recreate for himself.” Whole books have been devoted to Leonardo’s place in the popular imagination: even during his lifetime he seemed symbolic—as Giorgio Vasari, one of his earliest biographers, put it, there was something “supernatural in the accumulation in one individual of so much beauty, grace, and might.” Freud has his Leonardo (mortally ruined by a bad translation), as do Paul Valéry, Walter Pater, and, of course, Dan Brown. The Leonardo that each age invents for itself says as much about the age as it does about the man or his works. Toby Lester now offers a Leonardo particularly suited to our own times. He is defensive and yet proud of his lack of book learning; he “bristles at being condescended to”; he is hell-bent on espousing “experience” as his first, best, and only teacher (even after he is seen raiding the magnificent library in Pavia); he is decisive, determined, ambitious, eager to “get his hands dirty”—in short, a kind of all-American Renaissance man.

What saves Lester’s book about Leonardo is that it is not simply a book about Leonardo. Leonardo’s biography here—Lester’s idea of Leonardo—vies with a much bigger, more nebulous narrative. Da Vinci’s Ghost bills itself as the story of a particular product of Leonardo: his famous rendition of the Vitruvian Man, the guy, as Lester has one friend describe him, “doing naked jumping jacks.” Leonardo’s drawing did not spring fully formed from Leonardo’s imagination (read enough about the Quattrocento genius and you realize little did). It was the outcome of Leonardo’s engagement with a long philosophical, theological, and even architectural tradition, stretching back to the ancient Greeks. Lester, a journalist whose first book traced the fortunes of “the map that made America,” is practicing a kind of pop intellectual history, and the more he explores that crowded and seemingly contradictory terrain, the firmer ground he is on. The book contains a number of strands, all related and yet each quite distinct. That he manages to not just keep his threads from tangling but to weave a comprehensive narrative is his main achievement.

The frame of Da Vinci’s Ghost is something called “the human analogy,” or “the microcosm.” This idea permeated almost every area of knowledge and thought in Classical antiquity and Medieval and Renaissance Europe, as well as influencing countless early Arab scholars and physicians. The basic conceit was that man, whom God had made in his image, was in fact a “little world,” worth studying for the insights he might reveal about both the natural world and the nature of divinity itself. According to Lester, “The human body wasn’t just designed according to the principles that governed the world. For these scholars, thinkers, and theologians, it was the world, in miniature.”

Lester chases this idea through the centuries with vigor, starting us off with Vitruvius himself. Augustus’s architect, Vitruvius wrote the first architectural treatise, the Ten Books that would eventually make their way to Leonardo’s library and spur his creation of Vitruvian Man, the “world’s most famous drawing.” Lester aptly exposes the roots of the microcosm theory. “Nobody made the human analogy more consistently than the Stoic philosophers of Greece and Rome,” he notes, adding that Roman land surveyors were the first to utilize a “geocentric cosmos.” Making maps that drew on the four elements, and representing them as a series of concentric circles, the Romans helped institutionalize the ancient symbolic power of the circle.

Lester adroitly lays out the significance of squares to temple building and Roman town planning (the points of the cardinal directions held the sky down); quickly summarizes the role of Augustus in establishing the correlation between body and empire; neatly details the role of ancient Greek sculptor Polykleitos in the establishment of the “mathematical ... proportions of the perfect human figure”; and ties everything back to Vitruvius, the architect trying to synthesize such practical matters as what kind of plaster to use and where to build your temple with an entire world-view. One way he did so was by describing the exact proportions of the human body—the description that provided the DNA for centuries’ worth of Vitruvian Men. “The only way to make sense of the cosmos, too vast an entity for the human mind to comprehend,” Lester notes, “is to study the scaled-down version on display in a well-shaped man.”

In the medieval period, that “well-shaped man” frequently turned out to be Christ himself, as the Vitruvian Man took on deeper theological connotations. Lester moves through the medieval incarnations of Vitruvius briskly. The Vitruvian-inflected visions of the German mystic Hildegard of Bingen; the progressive, almost Leonardo-esque scholarship of William of Conches; Arab dictionaries plotting the correspondences between man and nature; medieval maps of the human body—while Lester manages to make sense of it all, I had the occasional feeling that his need for speed (the book is only 246 pages long, including notes) entailed some serious abbreviations and abridgments.

Occasionally Lester contradicts himself and does not seem to mind—maybe he is just moving too fast to notice. He notes, for example, that medieval monks seemed to have copied Vitruvius’s Ten Books with astonishing frequency: “One recent inventory records that 132 of those manuscripts survive—evidence of a powerful current of interest in Vitruvius that flowed right through the Middle Ages.” Twenty pages later, however, he alleges that “Vitruvius’s Ten Books itself remained a work rarely copied or understood.” Such contradictions may be the outcome of Lester’s style, which tends everywhere to the bold declaratives of journalism rather than the careful locutions of scholarship. Certainly a “current of interest in Vitruvius” flowed through the Middle Ages—Christian iconography of the period frequently featured Christ with geometrical shapes like circles and squares, and basilicas take their shape from his crucified form. But perhaps Vitruvius’s work wasn’t as “powerful” a force as Lester first describes it; and perhaps it was not as “rarely copied or understood” as he later needs it to be. At times Lester’s book can feel like intellectual history as painted with a roller brush.

That feeling intensifies in the book’s middle chapters, which focus exclusively on Leonardo. Though there have been at least three large biographies of da Vinci in the last twenty years, Lester leans heavily on Vasari, the sixteenth-century writer thought to have had at least second-hand knowledge of him. Vasari is everyone’s primary source, but most biographers contextualize him, noting, for example, that he favored Michelangelo over Leonardo, and that he frequently got his facts wrong. There is no such disclaimer in Lester; Vasari’s words are simply used as “anecdotes about Leonardo’s early life.” The Leonardo in these chapters is a fairly standard affair. Lester recounts his early life in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, the scandalous Saltarelli affair, in which Leonardo was anonymously accused, along with four others, of sodomy (the charges were withdrawn), and his notorious difficulty completing projects. This is not an “untold” story, but a regularly re-told one, in biographies like Serge Bramly’s Leonardo: The Artist and the Man (1991), Charles Nicholls’s Leonardo da Vinci: Flights of the Mind (2004), and the reissue of Martin Kemp’s justly famous Leonard: The Marvellous Works of Nature and Man (2006).

While Lester practices the biography of ideas that is de rigueur in Leonardo studies, his facts are sometimes puzzlingly put. Again, these errors seem tied to Lester’s need to create a “compelling” narrative. An example: Leonardo left Florence in 1482 to travel to Milan. It’s as unclear why he left Florence as it is why he chose Milan. Some scholars think that Lorenzo d’Medici, the most powerful man in Florence, sent him to Milan as a musician; others suspect that he went as part of an oratori or envoy that included other scholars. But all agree that he wrote his famous letter to Ludovico Sforza, the ruler of Milan, offering his services primarily as a military engineer—and not a painter—before he arrived in the city. But Lester dates the letter to 1484, two years later. In doing so, he creates a timeline that emphasizes Leonardo’s ambition: Leonardo arrives in Milan to play music, is offended by the pomposity of the scholars in Sforza’s court, and only then turns to military engineering, offering his services to Sforza in part because he is motivated by the “fame and fortune” of others and eager for recognition himself. Lester’s Leonardo is curiously alive to the pricks of “scholars” and “learned men,” always ready to take offense, always plotting to “show them.” He begins to seem an angry adolescent, scribbling at his notebook in a corner.

Lester pursues Leonardo with close third-person narration. Of his time at Ludovico’s court, Lester writes, “Leonardo bristled at being condescended to … Ludovico had surrounded himself with court dandies, he felt, who did not understand the nature of true learning … Much of the ‘knowledge’ to which they arrogantly and mindlessly referred him was simply wrong, he believed—and he resolved to prove it.” Part of the trouble here is the assertive certainty of Lester’s authorial voice, which exists already in the grammar of Lester’s narrative. He uses basic past simple, ascribing emotions and decisions to Leonardo that cannot be proven. It makes a good story, but maybe not a good history.

Is there evidence that Leonardo felt this way? Well, yes and no. Leonardo’s notebooks—the thousands of pages of drawing and writing he left, and of which Vitruvian Man is a part—do suggest that he reviled scholars who rested on received wisdom. Leonardo did trumpet “experience” as his supreme guide, writing:

I well know that, not being a literary man, certain presumptuous persons will think that they may reasonably deride me with the allegation that I am a man without letters. Stupid fellows! Do they not know that I might reply as Marius did in answering the Roman patricians, by saying that they who adorn themselves with the labors of others, will not concede to me my very own … But do they not know that my subject are to be better illustrated from experience than by yet more words?—experience which has been the mistress of all those who wrote well, and, thus as mistress, I will cite her in all cases.

Lester uses parts of this passage in Leonardo’s notebooks, but he fails to acknowledge that Leonardo’s self-defense rests on the very book learning that he decries.

Still, Lester’s book is a fascinating account in many ways. His great skill is for contextualizing long-forgotten ideas and carrying them across centuries, showing how and why they circulate, seem to be forgotten, and are suddenly remembered only to be reinterpreted anew. One finishes Da Vinci’s Ghost having learned much about the microcosm and its importance to the ideas that shaped—literally, in the form of architecture—the beginnings of the modern world. The chapters in which Lester condenses and combines multiple figures, ideas, and periods are the best in the book. Though previous biographies do treat Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, most only sketch the context of the microcosm and point out that Leonardo was deriving his ideas from many sources, including contemporary master-builders and artist-engineers such as Francesco di Giorgio and the earlier Leon Battista Alberti. Da Vinci’s Ghost sets the drawing firmly in its time and intellectual place.

Like many of Leonardo’s most famed “inventions” (which only exist as sketches in his notebooks), Vitruvian Man is highly derivative. Leonardo, for all his alleged prescience, never quite emerged from his era’s misty plateau of religion, medieval science, and antiquity worship. He continued to believe in the existence of the sensus communis, or “common sense,” as a physiological fact, just like he persisted in thinking the heart had two ventricles, even after doing one of his famed dissections. He was a man as much of his time as he was a man ahead of it.

That is part of the greatness of Vitruvian Man, as Lester smartly points out. Leonardo did not simply copy existing images, or even conform exactly to the description that Vitruvius provided. He made subtle changes, adding two positions, turning the man’s left foot to provide the viewer with a subtle tool of measure. And his man in the middle is decidedly not “universal.” It is a real man in there, drawn with Leonardo’s formidable prowess in the burgeoning style of realism. Lester and others have suggested it might actually be a self-portrait—Leonardo’s way of acknowledging that we might only get to universal understanding through sustained encounters with the particular, the individual, the unique. Lester describes Leonardo’s “spirit,” as “at once medieval and modern, and ultimately rooted in the quest for self-understanding.” Rather than for any single painting or invention, Leonardo is really famous for that spirit, as it comes down to us through his notebooks and in drawings like Vitruvian Man. If nothing else, Da Vinci’s Ghost reminds us of that.

Hannah Brooks-Motl is a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. With Stephen Burt she helped edit Randall Jarrell on W.H. Auden.

To read a response from Toby Lester, click here.