You know the drawing: a male nude facing front, becurled and muscular, with two sets of arms and legs, one touching the circumference of a circle, the other the sides of a square. In “Da Vinci’s Ghost,” the journalist Toby Lester peers closely at Leonardo’s “Vitruvian Man” -- its origins, its meaning and the circumstances of the artist who drew it.
It’s called “Vitruvian Man” because the idea for it came from “Ten Books on Architecture,” written by a Roman military engineer named Marcus Vitruvius Pollio. For the Romans, architecture meant proportion, which meant the body.
“No temple can be put together coherently,” Vitruvius wrote, “unless it conforms exactly to the principle relating the members of a well-shaped man.” He elaborated:
“If a man were placed on his back with his hands and feet outspread, and the point of a compass put on his navel, both his fingers and his toes would be touched by the line of the circle going around him.”
Similarly, for a perfectly proportioned man with feet together and hands outspread (a posture that later would inevitably betoken the crucified Christ), “you would find the breadth the same as the height, just as in areas that have been squared with a set square.”
Body and Cosmos
Over time, the notion of the body as the locus classicus of proportion became tied to the relationship between the body and the cosmos -- the microcosm and the macrocosm. The 12th-century mystic Hildegard of Bingen put it this way:
“The firmament, as it were, is man’s head; sun, moon and stars are as the eyes; air as the hearing; the winds are as smell; dew as taste; the sides of the world are as arms and as touch.”
A 13th-century map of the world shows the three continents (Europe, Asia and Africa) bounded by a single ocean, with the head of Christ at the top (east), his feet at the bottom (west), and his outspread hands at the sides (north and south).
Enter Leonardo. Born in a Tuscan hill town in 1452, the artist who more than any other embodies our idea of the Renaissance man was, in fact, indifferently educated.
During his early years in Florence and Milan, his lack of Latin made him the butt of some condescension. Wounded pride was probably among the motives for the furious course of self-education that made him the Leonardo we know.
In Milan, he got involved in the intense debate over how to engineer the dome for the huge cathedral that was being constructed. Filippo Brunelleschi had immortalized himself by providing the solution in Florence; Leonardo wanted to become the Brunelleschi of Milan.
He never got the commission, but his studies in architecture were what led him to Vitruvius -- whose description of the ideally proportioned man was, incidentally, unillustrated. Moreover, there was a problem with Vitruvius’ description: The navel does not fall at the geographical center of the human body. The genitals do.
Leonardo solved the problem by shifting his square downward, so that it isn’t neatly superimposed over the circle. That way the navel falls at the center of the circle and the genitals at the center of the square.
In the course of investigating “Vitruvian Man,” Lester offers fertile digressions on Roman sculpture, Christian mysticism, medieval cathedral building, Florentine sexual mores and Milanese power politics. He treats the drawing, in fact, from every conceivable angle but one: This is not a book about art.
Instead it’s a compact and entertaining treatise on the history of ideas, written with the light touch of a journalist who’s investigating a subject in which he doesn’t pretend to be an expert, but who’s excited about every nugget of information he’s digging up.
“Da Vinci’s Ghost: Genius, Obsession and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image” is published by the Free Press (275 pages, $26.99). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)