Collections

Diaries of a genius – Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebooks digititized in all it’s beautiful glory

Posted February 13th, 2013

Books, Collections


The British Library in London has recently revealed a fully digitized collection of da Vinci’s musings, experiments and notes, resulting in almost 570 weird and wonderful images by the master artist.

Leonardo’s studies in science and engineering are as impressive and innovative as his artistic work. These studies were recorded in 13,000 pages of notes and drawings, which fuse art and natural philosophy (the forerunner of modern science), made and maintained daily throughout Leonardo’s life and travels, as he made continual observations of the world around him.

Leonardo’s writings are mostly in mirror-image cursive. The reason may have been more a practical expediency than for reasons of secrecy as is often suggested. Since Leonardo wrote with his left hand, it is probable that it was easier for him to write from right to left.

But you should know that Leonardo’s manuscript uses a code that, for those unfamiliar with the context of the times or with these kind of documents, could be difficult to understand.

Da Vinci’s notes and drawings display an enormous range of interests and preoccupations, some as mundane as lists of groceries and people who owed him money and some as intriguing as designs for wings and shoes for walking on water. There are compositions for paintings, studies of details and drapery, studies of faces and emotions, of animals, babies, dissections, plant studies, rock formations, whirlpools, war machines, helicopters and architecture.

These notebooks—originally loose papers of different types and sizes, distributed by friends after his death—have found their way into major collections such as the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, the Louvre, the Biblioteca Nacional de España, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan which holds the twelve-volume Codex Atlanticus, and British Library in London which has put a selection from its notebook BL Arundel MS 263 online. The Codex Leicester is the only major scientific work of Leonardo’s in private hands. It is owned by Bill Gates and is displayed once a year in different cities around the world.

Leonardo’s notes appear to have been intended for publication because many of the sheets have a form and order that would facilitate this. In many cases a single topic, for example, the heart or the human fetus, is covered in detail in both words and pictures on a single sheet. Why they were not published within Leonardo’s lifetime is unknown.

Jonathan Jones at The Guardian is wondering “Would Leonardo have approved? We think of him as a technophile – designing a diving suit in a drawing in this manuscript, for instance – but when it came to publication, Leonardo was a luddite. The movable type European printing press was invented in Germany in the 15th century and Leonardo owned many printed books – but he made no effort to get his notes published. Why? Was he secretive, or just waiting for the right moment, a moment that never came?”

- Digitized Collection of the notebooks at the British Library.
- The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci — Complete and free Ebook Edition at Gutenberg.com
- PBS.org – Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebooks