Brain Pickings

Da Vinci’s Ghost: How The Vitruvian Man Came To Be

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Fifteen centuries of combinatorial creativity, or what Leonardo’s to-do list has to do with ancient Rome.

In the first century B.C., at the dawn of the Roman imperial age, the architect and thinker Vitruvius proposed that the human body could fit inside a circle, symbolic of the divine, and a square, associated with the earthly and secular — an idea that later became known as the theory of the microcosm, and came to power European religious, scientific, and artistic ideologies for centuries. Some fifteen hundred years later, in 1487, Leonardo da Vinci rediscovered Vitruvius’s theories and put them into form. Thus, the Vitruvian Man was born — one of humanity’s most powerful, iconic, and enduring images, and a cornerstone of mapping the body, dominating visual culture in everything from books to billboards. Yet its story is far more complex than that, and its enigma far richer than a handful of historical factoids. This is exactly what Toby Lester unravels in Da Vinci’s Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image — a fascinating century-wide saga that explores how Leonardo set out to expand the metaphysical horizons of his art by studying the proportions and anatomy of the human body and its relationship with the cosmos, and ultimately created a visceral impression of Renaissance thought itself in the process.

Lester observes:

At a superficial level, [Vitruvian Man] is simply a study of individual proportions. But it’s also something far more subtle and complex. It’s a profound act of philosophical speculation. It’s an idealized portrait in which Leonardo, stripped down to his essence, takes his own measure and, in doing so, embodies a timeless human hope: that we just might have the power of mind to figure out how we fit into the grand scheme of things.”

The story, spanning a wealth of disciplines, cultures, and eras, unfolds through two parallel threads — one tracing Leonardo’s individual journey, and one weaving together the collective narrative of the people and ideas who filled and filtered the fifteen centuries between Vitruvius and Da Vinci. Among them are ancient Greek sculptors, early Christian and Muslim philosophers, Renaissance architects and anatomists, and Poggio Bracciolini, the book-hunter credited with starting the Renaissance.

Leonardo was also a voracious information omnivore, a quality so fundamental to the very networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity that no doubt enabled him to create the Vitruvian Man. He always carried a notebook with him and was known to have owned at least 45. Lester writes of the journals:

These notes reveal Leonardo in his perpetually ravenous information-gathering mode. Benedictine monks, obscure medieval treatises, university professors, popular guidebooks, accountants, itinerant merchants, foreign diplomats, artillerymen, military engineers, waterworks experts: all are fair game to him as he hunts for information about subjects that interest him.”

To complement Robert Krulwich’s NPR story about the book, my supremely talented friend Wendy MacNaughton (remember her?) drew this lovely illustrated to-do list based on a page from one of Da Vinci’s notebooks circa the 1490s:

More than a treasure trove of historical ephemera — though it certainly is that, with its generous selection of rare archival images that capture the evolution of Vitruvian Man — Da Vinci’s Ghost is also a profound reflection on humanity’s timeless obsession with untangling the intricate relationship between the physical and the metaphysical in our quest to better understand what we are and where we belong in the universe.

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