Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Book Review: Da Vinci’s Ghost

    Several years ago, I read Toby Lester’s The Fourth Part of the World, a sort of history of exploration, using the first map to name America as a catalyst.  Da Vinci’s Ghost spawned from Lester’s researches for that book, so it serves as an excellent expansion, but also reads perfectly well as a stand-alone.  Here, he delves into the life of one of our greatest heroes and the concepts that led him to finally draw one of the most famous images in human history, The Vitruvian Man.

    Connecting art, architecture, science, medicine, religion, and the amazing and noble possibilities of Humanity, we’re treated to a vision of history and people more complex than is typical of history books, especially the sort you might read in school.  I’ve enjoyed a lot of recent history books that give a much more relatable face to the names you’re used to hearing about.  This isn’t an old, academic guy with a beard, but a vibrant, gregarious, self-taught genius with all the failings of an average guy.  The da Vinci presented in this book is the kind of guy you hope to have in your circle of friends, the challenging but infinitely rewarding companion.  And here we see the ideas of a Roman military man, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, looking to make a name for himself, who wrote a book that would go on to shape a great deal of how Medieval Europeans saw the world and a man’s relationship to it a Christians adopted its concepts into their own cosmology.  Looking at the body as a microcosm, a miniature cosmos, the male form was supposed to reflect the perfect design of God’s creation.  Obviously, this view of the world doesn’t actually play out when you look at things more critically.  But it had a profound effect on the Medieval mind none the less.

    If you enjoy history at all, are interested in architecture, art, science, medicine, the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, or simply a good story, this is worth a spot on your bookshelf; as is Lester’s previous work, The Fourth Part of the World (very, highly recommended).  Breathing life into our history is a noble effort.  I was lucky.  I was fascinated by history since watching Raiders of the Lost Arc and seeing Tales of the Gold Monkey as a wee lad.  But many folks I know have been turned off to the subject by dry textbooks and drier teachers who can do little more than recite facts and figures without the context that makes it meaningful (not unlike most English/Literature teachers I’ve come across).  This is the kind of book that is perfectly readable and gives plenty tantalizing details that will doubtless prompt readers to investigate further.

DaVinci’s Ghost
Author: Toby Lester
Publisher: Free Press
ISBN: 978-1-4391-8924-5


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