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Da Vinci's Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image Hardcover – February 7, 2012

4.1 out of 5 stars 56 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Almost everyone is familiar with the Vitruvian Man, an image created by Renaissance painter and inventor Leonardo da Vinci depicting a disrobed four-armed, four-legged man framed in a circle and square staring stolidly out at the viewer. The drawing, created by Da Vinci in 1487, has appeared on everything from coffee mugs to spacecraft and is often used by alternative-medicine purveyors as a symbol of homeopathic wellness. Few people may know, however, what motivated the artist to draft the illustration or what a rich history lies behind its creation. Lester, whose previous acclaimed book, The Fourth Part of the World (2009), told the riveting true story of the map that gave America its name, here provides an equally compelling survey of the social and artistic influences leading to Vitruvian Man’s creation. Along the way, Lester dissects the popular Renaissance notion that man’s God-given, perfect proportions justified using him as a template for architecture and paints a rare, vivid portrait of a younger, enthusiastic Leonardo, who promoted this idea. Highly recommended. --Carl Hays


"Every once in a while that rare book comes along that is not only wonderfully written and utterly compelling but also alters the way you perceive the world. Toby Lester’s “Da Vinci's Ghost” is such a book. Like a detective, Lester uncovers the secrets of an iconic drawing and pieces together a magisterial history of art and ideas and beauty."—David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z

"In reconstructing the forgotten story of Vitruvian Man, Toby Lester, a canny decoder of  images and a great storyteller, sheds new light on the enigmatic Leonardo DaVinci."—Chris Anderson, Editor in Chief of Wired, author of The Long Tail and Free

"Erudite, elegant, enthralling. This is a wonderful book. Toby Lester understands, and makes us understand, the unique intensity with which Leonardo saw the world. He saw it not only in its infinite diversity but also as an impression of his own self, an explanation of what it means to be human. Hence Vitruvian Man."—Sister Wendy Beckett, author of The Story of Painting

Da Vinci’s Ghost is both a beautiful and a brilliant book. After reading Lester’s account, you will never be able to look at Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man the same way again.”—Howard Markel, author of An Anatomy of Addiction

Da Vinci’s Ghost is as ingeniously crafted as one of its namesake’s famous inventions. Like Leonardo himself, Toby Lester can take a single sheet of paper—in this case, the most famous drawing in all of art history—and make it teem with stories, characters, insights, and ideas.”—Adam Goodheart, author of 1861: The Civil War Awakening

“Like almost everyone, I've seen Leonardo's drawing of the nude man in the circle. But until I read Toby Lester's terrific new book, I had no idea about the story behind the picture—or even that there *was* a story behind the picture. 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

"Like Da Vinci's famous drawing, Toby Lester's book is a small wonder—a work of brilliant compression that illuminates a whole world of life and thought. Lester proves himself to be the perfect guide to the Renaissance and beyond—affable, knowledgeable, funny. Leonardo's Virtruvian Man turns out to be a road map that can take us to remarkable places—once you learn how to read it."—Cullen Murphy, editor at large, Vanity Fair

“One of the great contributions of books like this is to keep the reader from taking for granted a familiar object. Lester’s detective story has a satisfying number of insights…covers a broad swath of history…[and] braids intellectual threads—philosophy, anatomy, architecture, and art—together in a way that reaffirms not only Leonardo’s genius but also re-establishes the significance of historical context in understanding great works of art.”—Publishers Weekly, STARRED Review

Praise for Toby Lester's Fourth Part of the World

“Marvelously imaginative, exhaustively researched. . . . Guiding the reader Virgil-like through the Age of Discovery, Lester introduces a chronologically and conceptually vast array of Great Men (Columbus, Vespucci, Polo, Copernicus, et al.), competing theories, monastic sages, forgotten poets, opportunistic merchants, unfortunate slaves, and more. That he relates it all so cleanly and cogently—via elegant prose, relaxed erudition, measured pacing, and purposeful architecture—is a feat. That he proffers plentiful visual delights, including detailed views of the legendary document, is a gift. This map, Lester writes, ‘draws you in, reveals itself in stages, and doesn’t let go.’ Nor does this splendid volume.”The Atlantic

“An intellectual detective story.  By using the [Waldseemüller] map as a lens through which to view a nexus of myth, imagination, technology, stupidity, and imperial ambition, Lester has penned a provocative, disarming testament to human ambition and ingenuity.”The Boston Globe

“Perfect for [somebody who] loves biography and nonfiction, particularly idea-driven books like Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel.The Wall Street Journal

"Lester pulls on the threads of Waldseemüller's map and finds an extraordinary braid of influences. [He] builds a cumulative tale of rich, diverse influences that he juggles with gathering speed and showmanship until the whir of detail coalesces into an inspired, imaginative piece of mapmaking.”San Francisco Chronicle

“One of this year's most captivating and richly detailed histories."The News Tribune

“Lester captures the passion, curiosity and, at times, the hubris behind the European explorations. His real interest lies in the evolution of Europeans' perception of the world, as reflected by their maps, an approach that works splendidly. To mid-millennial Europeans, there was nothing over the western sea but mystery and legends about islands, monsters and mythical beings. It took courage to sail off into that unknown, and Lester's book offers a clear survey of how people came to understand the world in which they lived.”The Washington Post

“Fascinating. Without Toby Lester's fine book, the Waldseemüller Map might remain an interesting historical footnote. Instead, one now understands the creation of the map as a world-changing moment, "a birth certificate for the world that came into being in 1492 -- and a death warrant for the one that was there before.’"Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Maps – intricate, absurd, fantastical, ridiculous – fill this beautiful book, reinforcing Lester’s thesis that they tell us as much about their makers as our surroundings. The heretofore unknown fourth part of the world was an enormous, unspoiled continent whose natural resources could be exploited and whose natives could be converted, sold into slavery, or exterminated. Like any train wreck, the controversies of this historical moment fascinate.”The Christian Science Monitor

“Compelling ... allows us to see how a group of European Renaissance scholars 'managed to arrive at a new understanding of the world as a whole.' Mr. Lester bravely ventures where few have gone before."The New York Times

“Thrilling. Vital to anyone interested in knowing the story of this country. An elegant and thoughtful account of the one morsel of cartographic history that would shake the world's foundations. [Lester's] is a rare and masterly talent."—Simon Winchester, author of, most recently, The Man Who Loved China

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; 1St Edition edition (February 7, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439189234
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439189238
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #843,947 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition
Little is known about Leonardo Da Vinci's drawing known as Vitruvian Man (drawing of naked man, limbs spread, square in a circle...you know). The author argues that it is possibly the most recognized drawing in existence, but it lives within a folder locked away in Venice, and little is known about its history. Seldom seen, little understood, yet an immediately recognizable iconic reference to the Italian Renaissance and its humanist ideals. Lester sets for himself a difficult double quest, and I believe he has fulfilled each fairly well.

This quest is to explain the importance of Vitruvian Man by placing it in historical prospective, and also explaining how it fits into the life of Leonardo. There are three main hurdles the author must overcome in order to succeed in this quest.

The first hurdle is that the author attempts to tell a complex story in a very, very short book: 225 pages plus another 70 pages of notes, index, etc. The second is that it assumes that the reader knows no European history, and thus absolutely anything he wants to include of historical significance, he must explain. Medieval Europe, guilds, Augustus, Hildegarde of Bingen. Long list of fairly basic historical facts needing definitions, not much space in which to accomplish this. Third hurdle, we know almost nothing of Leonardo's life outside what he left in his notebooks. This requires a seemingly endless number of 'it is probable that' 'the odds are good that'...
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Format: Hardcover
A gem of a book! Lester takes strands from history, theology, art, science, architecture, and medicine and weaves a tapestry that had me turning the pages. I enjoyed every word and illustration. And Lester creates a memorable - and economical - portrait of Leonardo and his times.

I loved The Fourth Part of the World: An Astonishing Epic of Global Discovery, Imperial Ambition, and the Birth of America, and now I loved Da Vinci's Ghost: both books will really stick with me.

I can't wait so see what Lester does next. I rank him with Charles Mann, Adam Hochschild, and John M. Barry on my list of brilliant and thought-provoking nonfiction writers and thinkers.
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Format: Hardcover
I cannot recall another book in recent years that I enjoyed reading more than I did Toby Lester's account of how "Leonardo created the world in his own image." In fact, I have twice re-read it before sharing my thoughts about it. The question that serves as this review's title was posed by Lester and he then set about to do what no one had done before. "On the surface, the story seems straightforward enough. Writing at the dawn of the Roman imperial age, Vitruvius proposed that a man be made to fit inside a circle and a square, and some fifteen hundred years later Leonardo gave that idea memorable visual form. But there's much more to the story than that." Indeed, with the skills of a storyteller and the relentless curiosity of a cultural anthropologist as well as the erudition of an art historian, Lester enables his reader to return in time to an age and an era unlike any other before or since: the Italian Renaissance and its human fulfillment, Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (1452-1519). Lester's narrative is developed on two separate but related levels: a sequence of events from ancient Rome until Leonardo's time, and, key developments in Leonardo's life and work, including one drawing (more about it later).

With regard to the meaning and significance of this book's title, consider these observations with which Lester concludes the book: "Brought into being more than a millennium ago and born of concepts far older still the picture [i.e. Leonardo's drawing of Vitruvian Man] contains whole lost worlds of information, ideas, stories, and patterns of thought. But look the subject directly in the eye, and you'll also see Leonardo da Vinci, staring out at you from the page.
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By Dianne Hales on February 12, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
With rigorous research, inspired insight and graceful writing, Toby Lester brings to light--and life--an unexplored dimension of Leonardo's genius. A tour de force for lovers of art, science, history, Italy and great story-telling. Yes, the plates add much to the text, and I highly recommend the paper rather than the digital edition. I find myself going back and savoring them again and again.

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In this fascinating book Toby Lester explores the story of Da Vinci's Vitruvian man tracing it back to the 1st century BC. It is a fascinating, well written story filled with symbolism and interesting connections
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I'd always heard that the Dark Ages were a horrible era when the Bubonic Plague ran rampant, the Greco/Roman masters were ignored, and people lived short grubbing lives. In `Da Vinci's Ghost" Toby Lester brings to light the succession of learning tracing it from the Greeks to the Romans and then threads it through to Medieval times and on to the Renaissance. He focuses on DaVinci but brings up many others, mostly unheard of to me, who kept the wisdom alive and added to it. During the Middle Ages there were vast libraries that were passed down and shared with other thinkers. Because this book was focused on DaVinci I expected that it would be about art history but it was much more than that because DaVinci was much more than an artist. He read thought and created much more in addition to his paintings. Lester focuses on Vitruvian Man, a tradition based on the ideal proportions of man's body and as such it was a symbol of the ideal of the universe; man and his body seen as a microcosm of the Divine. This was an enlightening book. I would advise getting the hard copy vs. the Kindle version of this book because the nine full color plates and the 53 pencil figure drawings add a lot to the understanding of the concepts.
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