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.

Complement with the psychology of what makes a to-do list successful.

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Cartographies of Time: A Visual History of the Timeline

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A chronology of one of our most inescapable metaphors, or what Macbeth has to do with Galileo.

I was recently asked to select my all-time favorite books for the lovely Ideal Bookshelf project by The Paris Review’s Thessaly la Force and artist Jane Mount. Despite the near-impossible task of shrinking my boundless bibliophilia to a modest list of dozen or so titles, I was eventually able to do it, and the selection included Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline (public library | IndieBound) by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton — among both my 7 favorite books on maps and my 7 favorite books on time, this lavish collection of illustrated timelines traces the history of graphic representations of time in Europe and the United States from 1450 to the present, featuring everything from medieval manuscripts to websites to a chronological board game developed by Mark Twain.

The first chapter, Time in Print, begins with a context for these images:

While historical texts have long been subject to critical analysis, the formal and historical problems posed by graphic representations of time have largely been ignored. This is no small matter: graphic representation is among our most important tools for organizing information.* Yet, little has been written about historical charts and diagrams. And, for all of the excellent work that has been recently published on the history and theory of cartography, we have few examples of work in the area Eviatar Zerubavel has called time maps. This book is an attempt to address that gap.”

* Cue in Visual Storytelling and graphic designer Francesco Franchi on representation vs. interpretation.

The Morning News has a wonderful slideshow of images from the book this week. A few favorites:

The Histomap by John Sparks, 1931.

In this universal history Johannes Buno, 1672, each millennium before the birth of Christ is depicted by an image of a large allegorical being. This dragon represents the fourth millennium B.C.

In the 1860s, French engineer Charles Joseph Minard pioneered several new infographic techniques. Published in 1869, this endures as his most famous graphic, featuring two diagrams that depict the size and attrition of the armies of Hannibal in his expedition across the Alps during the Punic wars and of Napoleon during his assault on Russia. The faded-red color band indicates the army’s strength of numbers, with one millimeter in thickness representing ten thousand men. The chart of Napoleon's march also includes a measure of temperature.

While mapping the body, the mind, and the heavens might be traced back to antiquity, mapping time, Rosenberg and Grafton remind us, is a fairly nascent enterprise:

The timeline seems among the most inescapable metaphors we have. And yet, in its modern form, with a single axis and a regular, measured distribution of dates, it is a relatively recent invention. Understood in this strict sense, the timeline is not even 250 years old. How this could be possible, what alternatives existed before, and what competing possibilities for representing historical chronology are still with us, is the subject of this book.”

A 'synchronous chart' from Meteorographica (1863) by Francis Galton, pioneer of the study and mapping of weather. The chart represents weather conditions, barometric pressure, and wind direction at a single moment in time across the geographic space of Europe.

Discus chronologicus by German engraver Christoph Weigel, published in the early 1720s, is a paper chart with a pivoting central arm. Rings represent kingdoms, radial wedges represent centuries, and the names of kingdoms are printed on the moveable arm.

From literature to art history to technology, Cartographies of Time offers a fascinating and dimensional lens on what it means to peer from a single moment of time outward into all other moments that came before and will come after, and inward into our own palpable yet subjective perception of permanence and its opposite.

Images courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press / The Morning News

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Why Pink Doesn’t Exist: An Illustrated Stop-Motion Science Explanation in 60 Seconds

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Pretty in minus-green.

If OK Go’s stop-motion color theory for Sesame Street met mathemagician Vi Hart’s hand-drawn math lessons, you’d get Minute Physics — charming and illuminating hand-illustrated science animations, like this fantastic explanation of how the color pink exists even though pink light doesn’t.

Speaking in terms of light, pink should probably be called ‘minus-green,’ because pink is just the leftovers of white light when you take out the green.”

For more on the curiosities and quirks of the science of perception, don’t forget Mark Changizi’s fascinating The Vision Revolution, which explores why we see the way we do.

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10 Tips on Writing from David Ogilvy

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“Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well. Here are 10 hints.”

How is your New Year’s resolution to read more and write better holding up? After tracing the fascinating story of the most influential writing style guide of all time and absorbing advice on writing from some of modern history’s most celebrated writers, here comes some priceless and pricelessly uncompromising wisdom from a very different kind of cultural legend: iconic businessman and original “Mad Man” David Ogilvy.

On September 7th, 1982, Ogilvy sent the following internal memo to all agency employees, titled “How to Write” and found in the 1986 gem The Unpublished David Ogilvy (public library).

Ogilvy counsels:

The better you write, the higher you go in Ogilvy & Mather. People who think well, write well.

Woolly minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters and woolly speeches.

Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well. Here are 10 hints:

  1. Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times.
  2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.
  3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
  4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.
  5. Never write more than two pages on any subject.
  6. Check your quotations.
  7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it.
  8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.
  9. Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.
  10. If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want.
    1. David

This, and much more of Ogilvy’s timeless advice — including his 10 criteria for creative leaders and his core principles of creative management — can be found in The Unpublished David Ogilvy, a fine addition to this ongoing archive of notable wisdom on writing. The book is long out of print, but you can still find a used copy by rummaging through Amazon’s stock or the library stacks.

via Lists of Note

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