Perfectly formed

 Da Vinci’s Ghost: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Famous Drawing, by Toby Lester, Profile, RRP£16.99, 320 pages

Given how many texts have been devoted to Leonardo da Vinci, any new study must be special. Toby Lester’s Da Vinci’s Ghost hits the mark. It offers a compelling portrait of Leonardo, a potted history of western civilisation from ancient Rome to the Renaissance, and leavens scholarship with storytelling and graceful prose.

In his first book, The Fourth Part of the World (2009), Lester told the story of the map that gave America its name. This time he reveals the tale behind “The Vitruvian Man”, Leonardo’s famous image of a man contained within a circle and a square. Housed in the Accademia in Venice, the drawing has been reproduced countless times, yet we still do not know when, where or why Leonardo decided to make it.

Born around 70BC, Vitruvius was a military engineer who wrote The Ten Books on Architecture. A mammoth publication that laid down rules for building an imperial city, its insights into classical proportions would make it a bible for Renaissance architects such as Bramante and Palladio.

Leonardo’s drawing was inspired by two cornerstones of Vitruvian thought. First, that “no temple can be put together coherently ... unless it conforms to the principle relating the members of a well-shaped man”. Second, that architecture depended on “rule and compasses” – that is, squares and circles.

Lester’s skill lies less in illuminating what the ancients thought than how. From a fascinating argument that early Roman topography mapped the cartography of heaven to Cicero’s decree that God was “the architect of the world”, this was a civilisation that conceived itself through analogies between the terrestrial and the celestial.

Thus Vitruvius’s system of measurement based on bodily proportions – an inch equals a thumb, for example – looped back to a sacred source via its origin in the human ideal, which was a gift from God, as codified by ancient Greek sculptors. Yet it also found its incarnation in Vitruvius’s ruler, Augustus, considered God’s representative on earth.

The text survived the dark ages due to transcription by monks who perceived another analogy, this time between the figure of Augustus and Christ. Illustrations of early medieval maps show how frequently geographical regions were conceived within the embrace of figures who symbolised Christ or Adam. A picture is built of a world struggling to yoke the realms of God and man together as the latter made empirical discoveries that threatened the bond.

Lester pays homage to Arab scholars who pursued science and medicine, and translated classical texts, when western thought rejected such investigations as ungodly. By the time Leonardo was born, in 1452, those teachings had reached Italian shores.

Because so little is known about the background to “Vitruvian Man”, which first appeared in an 18th century folio of drawings, the second half of this book is speculation. That it enthrals is thanks to Lester’s inspired interpretation of images and texts.

Lester convincingly dates the drawing of “Vitruvian Man” to 1490, when Leonardo was based in Milan. Determined to win the commission for the cathedral dome, he would have immersed himself in architectural theories that drew heavily on Vitruvius.

A build-up so rich in detail risks a disappointing finale. Indeed, the chapter on the drawing itself is the least thrilling. Nevertheless, Lester dutifully enumerates its features: from the proportioned figure to the dense frame of handwritten notes where Leonardo details the measurements of the ideal man.

The drawing remained unknown until 1956, when Kenneth Clarke reproduced it in his book, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. That it captured the public imagination suggests our need for reassurance that we are the measure of all things.

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