'Da Vinci's Ghost' Lives On In The Vitruvian Man Most people are familiar with Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man: A nude man, with his arms and legs outstretched, inside a square within a circle. In his book Da Vinci's Ghost, author Toby Lester tells the story of da Vinci's quest to create an image of the perfectly proportioned human.
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'Da Vinci's Ghost' Lives On In The Vitruvian Man

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'Da Vinci's Ghost' Lives On In The Vitruvian Man

'Da Vinci's Ghost' Lives On In The Vitruvian Man

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Now let's talk about an image, an image that is a little over 500 years old. It is a drawing, and we practically guarantee that you have seen this image. Does it ring a bell? It is by Leonardo Da Vinci, and it is a drawing of a nude male figure who stands inside a circle within a square. And if you aren't sure what we're talking about, you can find it on our website. The drawing actually has a name, and it's called "Vitruvian Man." And it is the subject of a new book called "Da Vinci's Ghost" by Toby Lester. Very well reviewed book and much discussed. And it tells the tale of how this drawing came to be and the theories that inspired its creation.

But it is also a tale about the man behind the image in some ways that the story hasn't been told before, Leonardo Da Vinci, who was adamant about creating an image of the perfectly proportioned man. And in "Da Vinci's Ghost" we learn not only about Da Vinci's drive to create the drawing but also how the image and Da Vinci himself inspired thought about man's role in the universe. So this is the image that sometimes people refer to as the guy doing jumping jacks inside the circle and the square. What would you like to know about Da Vinci and about "Vitruvian Man"?

Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. So Toby Lester is the author of this new book, "Da Vinci's Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Image." He is also contributing editor for The Atlantic magazine and joins us now from member station WBUR in Boston. Toby, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION. Hi.

TOBY LESTER: Thanks for having me.

DONVAN: I've been guided by your wisdom ahead of time not to refer to Leonardo Da Vinci as Da Vinci, as so many of us do, and that you, in the book and throughout this conversation, will refer to him as Leonardo and that in that there's a little piece of information, which is what?

LESTER: Well, lots of people do call him Da Vinci, and I'm actually not too opposed to it, but there are plenty of purists out there who will say that Da Vinci just means from Vinci, and this figure named Leonardo was born in the town of Vinci and that's all that's telling you. So it's — to the purest ear, it sounds very peculiar, but I don't mind it so much. So I'm happy to go whichever way you want.


DONVAN: All right. Just not Leo. So you actually write, I would say, actually almost a biography of an image and then a biography of the man who made the image. But I've described the image. I'm hoping that people know the one we're talking about. And again, you can run to our website and see it, talk@npr.org - or at npr.org, TALK OF THE NATION. But "Vitruvian Man," the name itself has a story, and it tell us why Leonardo didn't exactly come up with the concept himself. So what is the story of "Vitruvian Man"?

LESTER: Well, the name is a tipoff. Vitruvian derives from the name of a Roman architect called Vitruvius, who wrote and worked in the 1st century BC and who, in a book of his on architecture, described the ideal proportions of the human figure and then said that the human figure, in this kind of ideal form, could be made to fit inside a circle and could be made to fit inside a square. And it's that idea that Leonardo, in his picture, is trying to capture visually. And in fact, the picture has writing on it, and the writing lays out some of those proportions that Leonardo then puts into visual form in his picture.

DONVAN: And - go ahead.

LESTER: No, no. Go ahead.

DONVAN: And what's so interesting also is that Vitruvius was writing about architecture, and he was talking about the need - as I read your book, he was talking about his desire to create architecture that touched a universal form, and the suggestion was that this universal form that should be represented in buildings was actually embodied in the human body. Do I have that right?

LESTER: You're exactly right. Yeah, I mean the idea was that - there had been long this idea of the microcosm, the idea that the human body was a kind of miniature model of the universe as a whole. And if you could study and obtain the kind of blueprint of a universal design that was in display on the human body, then you could understand all sorts of things about the universe. And as a working architect, obviously, if you could kind of latch on to the design principles that made both the human body and the universe perfect, then you could align your buildings with human life and with the kind of cosmic function of everything.

DONVAN: So this idea was so captivating that you write that, you know, over 1,000 years, lots of people tried to doodle this concept, that there are other images that prefigured da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man."

LESTER: Right. For a long time, there weren't. Vitruvius himself doesn't seem to have illustrated the concept. And although his manuscript was copied for generations, century after century, most of those manuscripts contained almost no illustrations. If they contained any they were, you know, usually just the illustrations of a column or a capital or something. But especially in the 15th century, in the decades leading up to Leonardo's own time in drawing, a number of people begin to try to render that idea in visual form. And in fact, there are some pretty clear indications that, in previous centuries, people had been playing around with it, although maybe not directly. And even if you come to think of it, Christ on the cross has a kind of Vitruvian element to him as well.

DONVAN: David from Leitchfield, Kentucky, has heard our call for people who want to ask questions about this picture or about Leonardo the man, and you're standing by and so you have been for a bit. So, David, you're on TALK OF THE NATION. Hi.


DAVID: Hey. How are you doing?

DONVAN: Very good.

DAVID: I wanted to see if anybody had ever explored the possibility if da Vinci was trying to draw what possibly could be a God figure, or what could be the perfect image of man and maybe see a reflection of God in it?

DONVAN: Interesting.

LESTER: Sure, and I think there's absolutely that going on, and especially of you think of it as part of a continuum. And in the book, I unpack this at a considerable length, but there are a lot of images of maps of the world and maps of the cosmos where you've got a circle and a square and then this human figure that's at once representing usually in the Christian context, Christ, but then also the kind of father figure, God.

And in fact, that's to oversimplify the symbolism of circle and the square. The circle, since ancient times, connoted, you know, things divine and cosmic. It's the perfect shape, that all of its points on its circumference are equidistant from the center, and it was the shape that governed all of the supposed concentric fears that made up to cosmos. And then you've got the human element of things, the square, where you bring things down to Earth and make sense of them, set them right.

DONVAN: David, thanks very much for your call. And I want to bring in John(ph) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. John, hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JOHN: Yeah. Thanks. I'm just curious. How heavily was he suppressed by the church? In other words, what - how far could he have gotten if he hadn't have worked under that fear? And I'll just take my answer off the air. Thanks.


LESTER: I don't - in the - looking into the story that I've done, I don't really detect a whole lot. He did...

DONVAN: He got paid by the church a lot. I mean, he got paid to do things in churches, did he not?

LESTER: Usually, he was paid by - sometimes by towns or churches or merchants, sponsors of the arts. But the church, as a kind of monolithic institution that prevented him from doing things, you just don't see much evidence of it. He did dissect bodies later in his life, and it seems that somebody reported him to the church and that caused him some grief. But I don't really think he labored under the feeling that he was trying to push the limits. It's a secular image, but he wasn't necessarily opposed to the church. He didn't set himself out to be that way at least.

DONVAN: The images that - the image of Leonard himself that I think most of us have are, you know, like Beethoven, he has become something of a bust with a austere expression on his face. But you take him - I don't want to say you take him down a few pegs - but you go more internally to a guy who is young and talented, but in some ways not unbelievably secure, and he was really a striver. He really had to push to make his mark particularly when he was young. And talk a little bit about that, about his attempts to, number one, educate himself because he didn't get a great education from anybody else.

LESTER: This - I found this to be a really fun part of the story, and one that people tend not to spend a lot of time talking about. You know, you have the myth of him as this kind of fully-formed genius with a big beard kind of gazing presciently off into the distance and transcending his age. But at the time I'm talking about in the book, which is the 1470s and 1480s, he is coming of age, he's learning the tricks of the trade, he is apprenticing himself to other artists and making mistakes and living it up as well. And then he's trying to make a living, and he's not necessarily doing that well. He had a horrible problem with deadlines. He, I think today, probably would have been diagnosed with ADD. He started things and kept starting them again and again and again, getting deflected by his own kind of ravenous mind into doing researches into other things. If you commissioned a painting from him, good luck.


DONVAN: And his notebooks, which are famous and there are a lot of them, you know, in which he sketched a lot of his ideas or thoughts and raised so many questions that - you refer to his notebooks as an enormous to-do list of the things he wanted to get to. But the notebooks themselves represent schooling that was unorthodox. He had to do it himself. He read things and wrote them down.

LESTER: Right, and then he was a real autodidact. He was raised, in his early years at least, in the town of Vinci and probably didn't receive a whole lot of formal schooling. And that hobbled him in some ways when he got to Florence and then after he moved to Milan where he drew "Vitruvian Man" in one way simply because he wasn't very good at Latin, and most of the scientific works that were available at the time were in Latin. So a lot of sort of formal scholastic learning was almost impenetrable for him.

DONVAN: He never really nailed Latin, did he?

LESTER: It doesn't seem so. In his notebooks, he even got these touching little attempts of his to teach himself Latin, you know, conjugating verbs and things. And he certainly got better as time went on, but he relied a lot on the help of others. He constantly was writing down in his notebooks people he wanted to consult about this or that question on this or that topic. He must have been both a fascinating guy to spend time with but also probably exhausting.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Greg(ph) in Syracuse. Hi, Greg. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

GREG: Hello.


GREG: Hi. I was wondering about the change of how men or humans, in general, have gotten taller over the centuries, and with better nutrition, how our concept of the perfect proportion man may have changed? And what da Vinci's proportions would have been?

LESTER: Well, the picture itself is drawn to correspond to a set of proportions that Vitruvius himself laid out. But then also, it folds in some of Leonardo's own observations on human proportions. In the late 1480's, he did studies of a number of models in meticulous detail, and his notes are full of, you know, the measurements of, you know, the tip of the cartilage of their nose down to the top of their lip and, you know, things like that, sketches like that. And he comes up with proportions that he clearly was trying to measure against the Vitruvian ones, and in the cases where they were different, he went with his own. So he was beginning to reject classical authority in the favor of his own observations.

One of the things that he did was make the human figure - it would seem a little taller, but, you know, it's all relative. He's saying, you know, a human body is 7 feet. But that, you know, as the foot gets bigger, then the bigger gets bigger. So it's all down to scale.

DONVAN: Thanks, Greg, for your call. Didn't he also have the task of trying to place the navel in the center of the circle and another part of the body in the center of the square, and then to have all of that fit together? Remember about that?

LESTER: Right. Vitruvius, in his work, said you can find - you can place a human body in a circle if you place one point of your compass in the navel, and then put the arms out and legs out and draw a circle around the body, and then he goes on to say likewise, you can put a body in a square. He never said superimpose them, but Leonardo was working in a tradition that had begun to evolve in the 15th century when people were trying to capture that idea in one single picture. And others tried it.

But if you put a circle inside a square and you try to put a human figure inside a circle and a square, you get a very funny looking creature. The navel is not the center of - the natural center of the human body. Although, of course, now we can recognize that there's not some kind of absolute, definable set of proportions for every human being.

DONVAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION on NPR News. Let's go to Bryan(ph) in Detroit. Hi, Bryan. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

BRYAN: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.


BRYAN: I actually find da Vinci to be quite fascinating because I'm both an engineer and an artist, both as da Vinci's was as well.

DONVAN: You mean Leonardo, of course.

BRYAN: Yes, Leonardo.


BRYAN: And so I've heard a rumor from several different sources that Leonardo drew the image and a bit of a reflection of himself. But I haven't been able to find anything conclusive about that. So I was wondering if your guest had heard anything about that rumor.

LESTER: I talk about it in the book, and the short answer is there is no way of saying for sure. There just aren't images of Leonardo that will tell us this, and he certainly didn't admit to it himself. I do think that you can say that the figure that's in that picture corresponds in nice ways to existing descriptions of Leonardo that exist. He was described as being very finely built, strong, very beautiful with locks of hair that curled and went down to his shoulders. There are a couple of possible renderings of him, one that survives in a sculpture from Florence and another that's in a fresco from Milan, and they both look a bit like that figure as well.

To me, though, even if you can't say for sure that the figure looks like Leonardo, at a kind of metaphorical level, I absolutely believe that it's a self-portrait in that I see him looking at himself in that picture and trying to make sense of himself in that sort of active looking at yourself and studying yourself is a kind of central defining notion that guided him in a lot of his work, and he captured that in the picture.

DONVAN: Toby, in - I hate to say, (unintelligible) as you to do this in about 15 seconds, but maybe you've actually thought about it. What was the piece of the story you never - the puzzle that you weren't able to solve that you wish you had?

LESTER: Why the picture caught on? I had assumed that it had been iconic pretty much every since he drew it. But, in fact, he drew it in 1490 and almost nobody paid any attention, and it wasn't until 1956 when it was included in an art history volume of nudes that the picture really took off. And I talk about this in the book as well, but it became iconic in a very short space of time in the second half of the 20th century.

DONVAN: On T-shirts everywhere. Toby, I have to cut you off, but I want to thank Toby Lester. His new book, "Da Vinci's Ghost," is out now. He joined us from member station WBUR in Boston. And you can find a reproduction of the original "Vitruvian Man" on our website as well as an excerpt of the book. It's at npr.org. Toby, thanks very much for joining us, and tomorrow is SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan in Washington.

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