RA Crossroads: What To Read After Toby Lester’s Da Vinci’s Ghost

As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, What is the use of a book‚Ķwithout pictures or conversations? Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection reader’s advisory service goes where it may. In this column, the wonders of da Vinci lead me down a winding path.


Lester, Toby. Da Vinci’s Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image. Free Pr: S. & S. Feb. 2012. 304p. ISBN 9781439189238. $26.99. ART/BIOG/HISTORY
Vitruvian Man
, the image of a human figure enclosed in a circle and a square, arms and legs extended in dual movements, is one of the most famous images of the Renaissance. It is an important image as a surviving work of da Vinci, but also because of what its existence can tell us about da Vinci’s self-education. In exploring its creation, Lester offers readers an artistic, bibliographic, and historical quest filled with details of architecture, ancient philosophy, and religious thinking. His work is an accessible lay study that avoids deep biography in favor of sketching the myriad influences that led to Vitruvian Man. It turns out that one of the gems of the Renaissance came into being because of a book, by all accounts badly written around 25 B.C.E. and made even less useful by poor scribal copies over the ages. Vitruvius, a Roman architect, created The Ten Books on Architecture to claim fame, curry favor, and explore political and metaphysical thought. The story of how da Vinci came to know and be influenced by The Ten Books and its metaphysical concepts of the microcosm ranges from medieval mystics to Filippo Brunelleschi. By tracing the works that underpinned the known body of knowledge da Vinci could access and then showing how da Vinci culled what he could from those books and went further into his own investigations, Lester shines a light on the master’s process of critical inquiry and artistic exploration. It is a fascinating journey with a lively pace, intriguing illustrations, a large cast of characters, and intertwined stories that jump and skip through history.


Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Norton. 2011. 368p. ISBN 9780393064476. $26.95. HIST
Greenblatt’s quest to discover how Lucretius’s masterpiece of Epicurean philosophy, the first-century B.C.E. poem On the Nature of Things, was found and introduced into 15th-century thought makes an excellent next read for those who enjoyed Lester. Greenblatt’s investigation is ultimately one of restoration and influence, while Lester’s is focused on the education of da Vinci. Both, however, trace the importance of books in the Renaissance and their effects‚ in particular how creative energy echoes through the ages. Greenblatt’s history is enthralling and like Lester’s is full of details and intertwining tales. Most thrilling of all, one of Greenblatt’s main subjects, the 15th-century book hunter Poggio Bracciolini, makes a very short but profound appearance in Lester’s text; Poggio found not just Lucretius’s text but also Vitruvius’s The Ten Books. Readers particularly interested in the echoes of lost texts should also be pointed to Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole’s Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, which won the 2012 Sophie Brody Medal.

Johnson, Steven. The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. Riverhead. 2007. 320p. ISBN 9781594482694. pap. $15. HIST/MED
Readers who liked Lester’s exploration of how differently da Vinci thought about science, how he saw what accepted scientific dogma ignored, and how he pushed beyond that ignorance in his own work may enjoy Johnson’s scientific history of Victorian London and the cholera outbreak that claimed hundreds of lives. Like Lester, Johnson crafts a vivid picture of the times as he provides the background of accepted science on disease (that illness was spread through smells in the air) and follows Dr. John Snow as he determinedly pushes against the accepted theories and seeks to persuade the powerful that cholera was being spread through contaminated water. Johnson does an outstanding job detailing how Snow investigated the epidemic, explaining Victorian-era science and arguing how cities themselves shape history. His strongly narrative exploration tells intertwined stories, is full of vivid detail, and offers readers a quick pace.

McLaughlin, Jack. Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder. reprint. Owl: Holt. 1990. 496p. ISBN 9780805014631. pap. $21.99. BIOG/HIST
Like Lester, McLaughlin pens a biography of a mind in this elegant exploration of Jefferson’s building practices and his most beloved building, Monticello. Just as Lester explores da Vinci through the broad prism of his investigations into art, science, philosophy, and architecture ending with Vitruvian Man, McLaughlin traces the biography of Jefferson through Monticello in the broadest of contexts, exploring issues of class, slavery, family, and domestic life as much as the house itself. Which is not to say that the house does not feature strongly. In fascinating detail, McLaughlin traces its design and redesign as Jefferson aligned the building to fit his ideas of how things should work. Richly set, with multiple stories, the history pays close attention to understanding how Jefferson thought as a builder and architect. Readers of Lester who enjoyed delving into the multifaceted mind of da Vinci might appreciate McLaughlin’s illumination of another brilliant mind.


Burke, Peter. The Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society in Italy. Princeton Univ. 1999. 312p. ISBN 9780691006789. pap. $29.95. ART/HIST
If readers want background on the Italian Renaissance, Burke’s book offers solid introductory social and cultural history about the lives of artists (and writers) through the tenuous cycle of training and sponsorship. He explores the role of patrons‚ a subject Lester touches on and important to know about since it was critical to artistic success and advancement‚ and the political and religious uses of art. Burke also addresses the creation of artistic taste along with the philosophies, belief systems, and conditions of economics, religion, politics, and class that created the frame in which art was created, valued, and exploited. Frederick Hartt and David Wilkins’s History of Italian Renaissance Art makes a fine (and well-illustrated) companion to Burke. Hartt was one of the leading scholars of his age and his book, often used as a course textbook (and thus is rather expensive), is a standard introduction to the subject.

da Vinci, Leonard. Leonardo’s Notebooks. Black Dog & Leventhal. 2009. 336p. ed. by Anna H. Suh. ISBN 9781579128173. pap. $24.95. ART
Even though Lester includes a number of figures and plates in his work, readers are going to want to see much more. Among the many choices of illustrated volumes is this accessible collection with full-color images accompanied by clear and thoughtful notes. Other choices abound. The exhibition catalog for the da Vinci show held in 2003 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman edited by Carmen C. Bambach, is a treasure. The book includes over 300 color plates and 11 scholarly yet accessible essays. Additionally, A.E. Popham’s The Drawings of Leonardo is considered an outstanding collection. Kenneth Clark’s Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps the most widely regarded introductory work on da Vinci and is a good place for those interested in learning more to start. Finally, Martin Kemp is one of the most noted scholars on da Vinci and his Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment, and Design directly addresses the ways in which da Vinci thought on paper‚ the subtext of Lester’s exploration of Vitruvian Man. As to editions of Vitruvius, Penguin publishes a version translated by Richard Schofield with illustrations titled On Architecture. It serves as a reliable introduction. The Morris Hicky Morgan edition is online via Project Gutenberg and includes illustrations and photos.

King, Ross. Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture. Penguin. 2001. 208p. ISBN 9780142000151. pap. $15. ARCHITECTURE/HIST
The dome Filippo Brunelleschi designed and built for the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral in Florence strongly influenced da Vinci. Taking nearly 30 years to construct, the dome was one of the first sights da Vinci saw when he left home to apprentice with Andrea del Verrocchio. Through the course of da Vinci’s life, Brunelleschi’s dome stood as an achievement to understand, model, match, and, perhaps, outdo. Brunelleschi’s interests in architecture and theory spoke to da Vinci, who had his own wide-ranging interests, beliefs, and focus. King brings the building of the dome to life in a lay approach similar to Lester’s and offers readers minute detail of the building process, insight into Brunelleschi, and a grand sweeping take on the time and culture.


NOVA: Mystery of a Masterpiece. 60 min. David Murdock. dist. by PBS. 2012. $24.99.

While Lester focuses on one of da Vinci’s drawings, great attention is currently being paid to a mysterious work that might turn out to be a lost painting of da Vinci’s. NOVA and National Geographic team up to present an artistic detective story: is a painting Christie’s auction house labeled as an early 19th-century German portrait of a young woman really a lost da Vinci? The story of how it might be is enthralling and addictive to watch and should please Lester fans who were intrigued by how he pieced together the manner in which da Vinci came to draw Vitruvian Man. As a side note, Lester also offers a bit of background that might support the idea that the painting is a da Vinci; part of the mystery is who the girl in the painting is. Right now, odds are that it is Bianca Sforza, and Lester spends some time discussing da Vinci’s connections to the Sforza family. Murdock takes viewers into the rarified world of art experts, shows how art is faked, and tracks down clues to what just might prove to be a lost masterpiece. There is a great deal to enjoy about this production: abundant details of art and book forensics and a truly amazing modern (private?) library in which a vocal Doubting Thomas makes his case. As of February 10, 2012, NOVA is offering online viewing access, and a brief article (with a full-sized image) is included in the February 2012 issue of National Geographic Magazine.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net