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Da Vinci's Ghost

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

About The Book

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.

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 released the picture into the ecosystem of popular culture, where it has been reproducing rampantly ever since.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

1. If Vitruvian Man is the male ideal, who is the female ideal? Is there an image, painting, sculpture, or even a description in literature that is the female equivalent of Vitruvian Man?
2. According to Vitruvius, architecture is the defining human art. (p. 26) Do you agree?
3. Vitruvian Man is about perfect proportion, harmony, and order. Are these our definitions of beauty? Is there beauty to be found in asymmetry or imperfection, in disorder or chaos?
4. Would you have liked to live during Leonardo’s time in fifteenth-century Italy? If you could travel back in time, what age would you live in? And where? Why?
5. In his famous treatise On Painting, Leon Battista Alberti wrote, “Painting possesses a truly divine power.” (p. 82) Do you think there is an element of the divine in artistic talent? What do we mean when we call someone “gifted”?
6. Leonardo wanted to become “the universal master of representing every kind of form produced by nature.” (p. 93) Do you think his desire for ultimate mastery and comprehensive knowledge helped or hindered him as an artist?
7. Leonardo eventually gained the patronage of the rich and powerful Lorenzo de’ Medici. What do you think of the patronage system for supporting artists? Should we bring it back? Does it exist in some form today?
8. Where have you seen Vitruvian Man or imitations or parodies of the image?
9. Filippo Brunelleschi’s dome on the cathedral in Florence was a remarkable feat of architectural engineering as well as a triumphant moral accomplishment. (p. 110) Can you think of any current projects or construction that bears similar cultural weight today?
10. The Florentine artist and architect Filarete wrote that a building “is truly a living man.” (p. 155) Do you think that buildings have human or organic qualities?
11. Leonardo had to teach himself Latin in order to learn about all the subjects he wanted to master. (p. 170) What language do you wish you knew how to speak or write? Why?
12. Plato said the soul exists independent of the body. Leonardo, Aristotle, and St. Augustine all believed that the soul was a physical part of the body. (p. 180) Leonardo even mapped its location in the brain. (p. 185) What do you think: Are the soul and body unified or independent?
13. Leonardo da Vinci was a visual thinker. He had to draw things in order to make sense of the world. How do you best learn new information: visual, aural, verbal, tactile, kinesthetic, or any other way?
14. Vitruvian Man was released into popular culture in 1956 when the art historian Kenneth Clark included the image in his book The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. (p. 220–21) What do you think it is about Vitruvian Man that has so captured our imagination? Why is it such a popular image?
15. Leonardo wrote of one of his anatomical studies, “With what words, O writer, will you describe with similar perfection the entire configuration that the drawing here does?” (p. 225) Do you think that images can communicate things that words cannot?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Leonardo kept a number of now famous notebooks. Keep a notebook of your own for a week or a month. Write down your ideas, inventions, observations, and questions. Make sketches. Share with the group.   
2. Read all or part of Alberti’s On Painting. It can be found online at: Discuss the principles and ideas that Alberti lays out and whether the text has held up over time as an exposition of “the cultivation of a painter’s mind and character.” (p. 82)   
3. Leonardo was extremely curious about how the world works and made an eclectic list of things he wanted to find out. (p. 168) Make your own list of ten things in the world that you want to know how they work.   
4. Read Kenneth Clark’s The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, which launched Vitruvian Man into the popular imagination. Does this enhance your understanding of Vitruvian Man? Can you see, in the context of this book, why the image immediately became so popular?   

A Conversation with Toby Lester 

1. What do you think it is about Leonardo’s image of Vitruvian Man that has so captivated people?  

I’ve grappled with this question a lot and have ended up concluding that it defies easy explanation. At one level the answer’s pretty simple. To put it in modern terms, the picture just looks cool. There’s something about the marriage of geometrical figures and the beauty of the human form that we’re almost hardwired to appreciate. And Leonardo’s touch, of course, makes all the difference: the other figures of Vitruvian Man that I showcase in the book—forgotten Vitruvian Men that precede Leonardo’s—are executed much more clumsily. Ultimately, though, much of the power of the picture derives from its face, I think, which looks for all the world like the face of somebody intently studying himself in the mirror, trying to ascertain the secrets of his own nature. And that was precisely the task Leonardo assigned himself throughout his career. We’re all engaged in that same task, in one way or another, so maybe when we look at the picture we see ourselves, engaged in the universal-but-particular act of self-reflection.

2. This book must have required an enormous amount of research. Can you talk a bit about how you went about it and how long the research portion took? Did you travel a lot?  

Sure. My books tend to be very research heavy. I start out by reading generally and burrowing into the footnotes, which send me to more and more obscure places. Luckily, I’ve had access to the library system at Harvard, where my wife works, so almost anything I find mentioned anywhere—a fifteenth-century manuscript, an unpublished dissertation, an obscure nineteenth-century journal article—I can track down. With this book, I did about three months of general research and then started writing, with the demands of the narrative then guiding me to what I need still to find out. I never feel quite ready to start writing, because there’s always more to learn about whatever it is I’m writing about, but the job of writing itself helps me narrow down my research, because anything that doesn’t serve the story I’m constructing has to fall away, no matter how interesting. As for travel, for this book I visited Florence, to do a little library research but mainly to soak up atmosphere; Venice, for a private viewing of Vitruvian Man itself; and Windsor Castle, just outside of London, which owns a stunning and large collection of Leonardo’s proportional and anatomical studies. And I have to say: There’s nothing quite like being left alone in a room for an afternoon with some thirty Leonardo drawings. It was quite a thrill.

3. You do a lot of writing for magazines, The Atlantic and others. How does the research and writing process for a book differ from the process for a magazine article?  

In my case, not a whole lot, except that the scale of the enterprise is different. The problem with writing a book, which is also its great advantage, is that you have so much more room, and so much more time—this is why you hear stories so often of people who put in a decade or more working on a book. To avoid that fate, I try to treat each chapter like a long magazine article: it’s about the same length, and I try to give myself a deadline and then meet it. And once I’m done with a first draft, I don’t revisit it until I’ve finished the book.

4. Do you think it is significant that Vitruvian Man was launched into popular culture by Kenneth Clark’s The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form? Was there something about the zeitgeist or Clark’s book specifically that propelled this image in the way it did?  

I honestly don’t know. I think the zeitgeist is a more likely answer than the book, because the book wouldn’t have done well had the zeitgeist not allowed it to. By the 1950s, popular interest in Leonardo was really on the rise, so my guess is that Vitruvian Man reappeared on the scene as a kind of compressed visual embodiment of everything that people wanted Leonardo to stand for, as both an artist and a scientist. And the more the image started to appear in new contexts, on spacecraft and shirts and logos and such, the more iconic and ironic meanings it accrued, until spoofs depicting Homer Simpson and Sponge Bob as Vitruvian Men themselves became part of the appeal.

5. There have been exhibitions of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks all over the world. Have you seen the notebooks? What do they reveal about to you the man?  

I’ve seen a lot of drawings in the original, many of which originally were in some of Leonardo’s notebooks, and I’ve looked at most of the notebooks in full facsimile form. It’s an exhilarating thing to do. As you page through all of the detailed notes and experimental observations, the hastily jotted down lists of things to do, the elaborate plans for books never written, and, above all, the sketches and scribblings and diagrams and drawings, you get the sense that you’re inside Leonardo’s head. That’s really how I felt as I looked everything over: that in his notebooks Leonardo was thinking on the page. Everything is flux: curiosity drives it all, ideas spawn ideas, thoughts leap sideways and backwards, analogies present themselves as not just verbal but visual. And it’s this vast, Rube Goldbergian scaffolding that supports the construction of apparently serene paintings like the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.

6. Poggio really did Vitruvius a service by sending his manuscript of the Ten Books to Florence. What do you think would have happened to it if he hadn’t?  

Well, the chances are that some other dogged Renaissance book hunter would eventually have found the manuscript, with a copy eventually making its way back to Florence well before the end of the 1400s. But with even a decade or two of delay, Alberti might not have devoted himself to a study of Vitruvius and might not have written his own treatise on architecture in reaction to it—a work that was hugely influential not only in the Italian Renaissance’s revival of classical architecture but also for centuries after that. And I suppose it’s quite possible that without Alberti’s influence, interest in Vitruvius would have been less widespread, and Leonardo himself would never have drawn Vitruvian Man.

7. How did you arrive at the book’s title? Did you consider other titles?  

I considered a few, but early on I came up with the ghost title and really felt it worked. It has to do with the idea that Vitruvian Man is a kind of self-portrait of Leonardo. In the book I marshall some evidence to suggest that it may have at least some elements of a true self-portrait, but that’s not a point I try to press. What interests me more is that it seems to me to be a metaphorical self-portrait in that it shows Leonardo doing what he always did: looking at himself, seeing the world, and trying to understand the nature of everything. Whenever I look at the picture now—and it really is everywhere—I see a vision of Leonardo gazing out from the page, dead for five hundred years but still a ghostly, ubiquitous presence in the modern world.

8. Do you have a favorite visual artist, Renaissance or otherwise?  

Leonardo, without a doubt. But he’s a little like Mozart or Beethoven in music: his work is so well known that it’s hard to approach it without seeing the patina of centuries of adoring interpretation, and instead to understand just how remarkable it was in the context of its own times. To the extent that I could, that’s what I’ve tried to do in this book: scrape that patina off this one image and see what emerges.

9. Is there a female equivalent of the Vitruvian Man in terms of representing the ideal woman or an image of a woman that has equally captured the public imagination?  

Nobody in ancient, medieval, or Renaissance times ever proposed a female analogue to Vitruvian Man. The male form simply was the ideal form for all of the men who were producing the art and doing the philosophy. I even quote a passage in the book from a medieval artists’ handbook that dismisses women in a single sentence, saying they aren’t worth discussing at length because they just don’t have proportions. That said, Leonardo incorporated a lot of his thinking about beauty and proportion in his painted portraits of women—most famously, of course, the Mona Lisa. And I think you might well be able to make the case that just like Vitruvian Man, the Mona Lisa itself is a study of the both the microcosm (Mona Lisa herself, and the baby she’s often assumed to be carrying) and the macrocosm (the backdrop against which she’s painted, in which all of the various forces of the natural world are at play).

10. Both this book and The Fourth Part of the World are concerned with images—pieces of paper with drawings on them—that have influenced our understanding of man, the world, and history. Is this something that appeals to you especially—the art object itself?  

I might put it a little differently: what appeals to me is the expressive power of the visual. Maps are wonderful in that respect: at one level, they’re very two-dimensional and neutral, but in fact they represent whole worlds of thought and history and cultural assumptions. That was the premise of The Fourth Part of the World: that by peering carefully at a single map, you can start to see the unfolding of an entire historical and cultural epic of discovery. The same holds true for Vitruvian Man. Leonardo believed deeply that images could capture, condense, and convey information much more effectively than words, and Vitruvian Man is a testament to that: it’s a vision of the cosmos, it’s a map of the world, it’s a summary of architectural theory, it’s a church plan, it’s a commentary on medieval and Renaissance art, and, just perhaps, it’s a self-portrait.

About The Author

Photo Credit: Catherine Claypoole

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.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (February 7, 2012)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439189252

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