Da Vinci's Ghost

Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image

Da Vinci's Ghost

In Da Vinci's Ghost, critically acclaimed historian Toby Lester tells the story of the world’s most iconic image, the Vitruvian Man, and sheds surprising new light on the artistry and scholarship of Leonardo da Vinci, one of history’s most fascinating figures.

Deftly weaving together art, architecture, history, theology, and much else, Da Vinci's Ghost is a first-rate intellectual enchantment.”Charles Mann, author of 1493

Da Vinci didn’t summon Vitruvian Man out of thin air. He was inspired by the idea originally formulated by the Roman architect Vitruvius, who suggested that the human body could be made to fit inside a circle, long associated with the divine, and a square, related to the earthly and secular. To place a man inside those shapes was to imply that the human body could indeed be a blueprint for the workings of the universe. Da Vinci elevated Vitruvius’ idea to exhilarating heights when he set out to do something unprecedented, if the human body truly reflected the cosmos, he reasoned, then studying its anatomy more thoroughly than had ever been attempted before—peering deep into body and soul—might grant him an almost godlike perspective on the makeup of the world.

Written with the same narrative flair and intellectual sweep as Lester’s award-winning first book, the “almost unbearably thrilling” (Simon Winchester) Fourth Part of the World, and beautifully illustrated with Da Vinci's drawings, Da Vinci’s Ghost follows Da Vinci on his journey to understanding the secrets of the Vitruvian man. It captures a pivotal time in Western history when the Middle Ages were giving way to the Renaissance, when art, science, and philosophy were rapidly converging, and when it seemed possible that a single human being might embody—and even understand—the nature of the universe.
  • Free Press | 
  • 320 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781439189245 | 
  • October 2012
List Price $17.00 (price may vary by retailer)
In Stock: Usually ships within 1 business day
Buy from another retailer


Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Da Vinci's Ghost includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Toby Lester. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man is one of the most recognizable and reproduced images in the world. In Da Vinci’s Ghost, Toby Lester examines why and how Leonardo came to draw the image. As Lester shows, Leonardo’s drawing gave unforgettable visual expression to an idea first set forth by a Roman architect named Vitruvius: namely, the idea that the proportions of the ideal human being are harmonious with those of nature and the cosmos. But Lester also reveals that the drawing provides a fascinating window through which to review and rethink all sorts of subjects, ranging from ancient theories of beauty to medieval church building to science and art in the Renaissance, while also helping to shed new light on the life and work of Leonardo himself. Surprisingly, Lester also notes that this apparently timeless image only achieved its iconic status a half century ago, when the art critic Kenneth Clark included it in a bestselling book titled The Nude. The book’s publication r see more

More Books from this Author

The Fourth Part of the World

About the Author

Toby Lester
Photo Credit: Catherine Claypoole

Toby Lester

Toby Lester is the author of The Fourth Part of the World (2009) and a contributing editor to The Atlantic. A former Peace Corps volunteer and United Nations observer, he lives in the Boston area with his wife and three daughters. His work has also appeared on the radio program This American Life.