Sunday July 22, 2012
Review by MARTIN SPICE
A lively, readable examination of an enigmatic drawing by the great Leonardo da Vinci.
Da Vinci’s Ghost
Author: Toby Lester
Publisher: Free Press, 275 pages
EARLIER in the year, the National Gallery in London staged what is generally thought to be the last great exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings ever to be seen in one place. Insurance costs and increasing fragility make it unlikely that some of the greatest pictures ever painted will share the same gallery wall again. After the initial booking period it was almost impossible to get tickets for the exhibition, despite extended gallery opening hours. The exhibition was a sold out, a massive success. Leonardo had woven his magic once more.
Scarcely had the excitement died down than a smaller, more modest exhibition took its place. The Queen’s Gallery, in this Jubilee year, decided to mount an exhibition called Leonard Da Vinci: Anatomist. These are drawings of the human body, all from the royal collection. They prompted one critic to comment that Leonardo’s dissection of the hand “is so exact that it could be used for teaching today and he drew a tricuspid valve that heart surgeons today would recognise”. They are detailed, brilliantly observed, alarmingly accurate. It is likely that they were made from direct observation of the dissected bodies of executed criminals.
But the most famous Leonardo drawing of all is that nude male figure framed by a circle and a square known as Vitruvian Man. Even if the name means nothing to you, you will know the drawing as soon as you see it, so often is it reproduced and plundered by advertisers. In a rather vague sort of way it has become an image of mankind, of human potential, of the human spirit. In Da Vinci’s Ghost, Toby Lester seeks to explain a little more clearly the history and cultural derivation and meaning of an image that in its own way seems to me both as beguiling and as enigmatic as Leonardo’s famed Mona Lisa.
Lester starts our history where it belongs, in ancient Rome, with a builder and architect named Vitruvius. He was the author of a highly technical and, by all accounts, very badly written book called Ten Books On Architecture in which he tried to set down all he knew about building and design – which was quite a lot. By the 15th century, that is by the time of Leonardo, such copies as there were of the book were “corrupted by centuries of scribal errors and omissions, which made it inaccessible to all but a few scholars and architectural theorists”. And even they found it hard going!
But amidst all the detail was an idea that was fundamental to Vitruvius’ ideas on architecture and central to the thought of the time and to Leonardo’s drawing: that man was a microcosm of the universe. “All the arts and all the rules,” wrote Franceso di Georgio Martini in a book that we know Leonardo possessed, “are derived from a well-composed and proportioned human body”. It was an idea that fascinated Leonardo.
Something that Lester makes clear is that the concept of the drawing of Vitruvian Man was by no means unique to Leonardo. Other artists and visionaries had drawn figures in squares and circles, including the mystic Hildegard of Bingen who claimed in one of her visions, which she illustrated, to have seen a human figure in the middle of a giant wheel whose extremities touched the circumference of the circle. The figure at the centre of the wheel embodied both Adam and Christ, while the Holy Spirit was at the circumference and the Godhead at the top. Thus was God and the universe represented and linked to man.
Another fascination shared by both Vitruvius and Leonardo was comparative measurements of the human body. The writing that accompanies Vitruvian Man in Leonardo’s mirror hand is in fact a detailed list of measurements to be found in the ideal human body – a small extract will suffice: “From the start of the hair to the margin of the bottom of the chin is a tenth of the height of a man; from the bottom of the chin to the top of the head is an eighth of the height of a man; from the top of the breast to the top of his head is one sixth of the man...” and so on, in very considerable detail.
What, then, does all this add up to? A study of human proportions? An overview of human anatomy? An architectural model? A metaphysical embodiment of man, the universe and everything? All of these or none of these?
Lester is cautious in attributing any single meaning to the image and he is surely right. “The picture contains whole lost worlds of information, ideas, stories and patterns of thought,” he suggests. It may also, he hints, be a portrait of Leonardo himself.
Clearly we shall probably never know exactly what Leonardo intended when he drew Vitruvian Man with strokes so firm that they actually indented the paper, but Da Vinci’s Ghost provides a clear, well-reasoned, readable and lively exploration of one of the artist’s most compelling and intriguing images.