In the first century B.C., the Roman architect Vitruvius sought to make a name for himself by appealing to Caesar Augustus’ ambitions and love of style guides. He wrote a treatise on building, using the human body as the basis for uniform measurements. Nearly 1,500 years later, those ideas led Leonard da Vinci to draw The Vitruvian Man, his famous image of a nude figure with arms and legs spread, framed by a circle and a square.

Da Vinci’s Ghost: Genius, Obsession, And How Leonardo Created The World In His Own Image traces the path from ancient Rome to da Vinci’s workshop, providing an examination of the role of ancient texts in medieval Europe, and a biography of da Vinci himself. Toby Lester, a contributing editor for The Atlantic, keeps his work taut and concise, though some of his examinations of Vitruvius’ influence on church architecture make for dull reading. He fully acknowledges the challenge of telling a story where so few details survive. Lester grasps at what evidence he can find to detail possible conversations and collaborations between da Vinci and his contemporaries. Some interactions are based off only a single line of historical text, and huge amounts of information are unknown, including da Vinci’s goal when he drew Vitruvian Man.


The gaps are particularly frustrating because da Vinci’s story is fascinating. Da Vinci’s Ghost paints a picture of a fevered mind, infuriated by the shortcomings he perceived in so-called learned men of his time. While the scholars around him were satisfied with studying ancient texts and looking down on the self-educated da Vinci, he was convinced that a love of tradition left them blind to the truths for which he desperately thirsted. Lester quotes musings from da Vinci’s journals and shows illustrations that chronicle the experiments he undertook, including dissecting a human skull and numerous animals to improve his knowledge of anatomy and make himself a better artist.

Lester acknowledges that The Da Vinci Code and other modern depictions have made da Vinci appear as a larger-than-life, awe-inspiring genius. While Lester shares some of that reverence for the quintessential Renaissance man, he also strives to show da Vinci’s human qualities. Da Vinci’s genius made him easily distractible, giving him a lifelong problem with meeting deadlines and finishing projects that led to him being denied many of the contracts he sought out. Some fellow artists thought da Vinci was vain for using himself as a model for his own works. His strange mirror script was unlikely to have been any sort of a code, just the result of da Vinci being a lefty with no formal writing instruction.


Many of da Vinci’s best-known works were still years away when he completed Vitruvian Man, but Da Vinci’s Ghost has its focus, and dutifully stops with the completion of the drawing. For Lester, the real story is the lasting impact of an ancient idea. Vitruvius never found the fame he sought in his time, but through da Vinci’s hand, his ideas won immortality.