Atlantic editor Lester (The Fourth Part of the World: The Epic Story of History’s Greatest Map, 2009, etc.) returns with another narrative-on-crank, this time about Leonardo da Vinci’s ubiquitous drawing known officially as his Vitruvian Man.
The author has a fondness of superlatives (see his subtitles), but in the case of da Vinci, it’s hard to avoid them. Vitruvian Man—the drawing of a man, arms and legs in two different positions inside a circle and a square—is named for Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, a Roman military and civil engineer, whose Ten Books on Architecture proposed the idea that the human body was a microcosm—learn the body’s secrets and design and you learn the universe’s. Providing many useful illustrations, Lester shows how versions of this idea appeared in the works and drawings of numerous others before da Vinci eventually pinned it down on a sheet of paper not much larger than a standard piece of office stationery. The author charts da Vinci’s career, noting his autodidacticism, his phenomenal desire to know everything, and his decision to keep notebooks and fill them with ideas, drawings, plans and observations. We also see a man who had trouble with deadlines: Da Vinci’s own work interested him far more than his commissions. Lester is fond of the bait-and-switch tactic. For example, he tells us about a visit to an archive in Venice to see the original drawing; then, at the threshold, he changes the subject, and we wait about 200 pages for the viewing, which, oddly, is underwritten and anticlimactic. The author also likes portentous endings and beginnings to chapters.
Leonardo-lite, but the illustrations are illuminating and da Vinci’s life is inspiring.