Biographies & Memoirs

The First Notebooks

The earliest intact Leonardo notebooks that we know of date from the mid-1480s. Most of the documents and sketches we have looked at so far are loose sheets bound into one or other of the great miscellanies, or preserved in collections like that at Christ Church College, Oxford. Some of them may have originally been part of a notebook or sketchbook, but on the evidence that remains Leonardo started ‘keeping’ notebooks around the middle of the 1480s. There is a sense of a rapprochement with the written word, a resolution of difficulties and resentments about the nature of his education, of his being an ‘omo sanza lettere’. This seems in part a technical proficiency, for now Leonardo’s handwriting becomes speedier and more succinct; it loses what Augusto Marinoni calls the ‘superfluousness and floweriness’ of his earlier hand.35

The oldest surviving notebook is probably Paris MS B, in the Institut de France. It is conventionally dated c. 1487–90, though one or two pages may be a little earlier.36 It is a standard quaderno or exercise-book: the pages measure 9 х 6½ inches, roughly the size of letter-paper today. It survives in its original vellum cover, with a flap closed by means of a toggle and loop. Textually it is almost intact, but physically it is split in two. The original notebook contained 100 folios, but in the 1840s it was one of the targets of the piratical Count Libri, who excised the last gathering (folios 91–100) and sold it, with other thefts, to the English bibliophile Lord Ashburnham. The pages were returned to Paris, but they are still bound separately from the rest of the notebook.

The subject-matter of MS B is amazingly various. The bound notebook is precisely a format which accommodates diversity, which ranges one interest frictively against another – an ongoing compendium of Leonardian enthusiasms. It has material on architecture, including that utopian city of the future, and some designs for churches. It has a good deal of military technology, both practical and ‘futuristic’. There are submarines and sinister-looking stealth-attack craft, ‘good for firing bridges at night; the sails must be black’.37 There is the Architronito, a steam-powered cannon made of copper, which Leonardo claims to have adapted from Archimedes: when water is poured into the heated breach the steam-pressure shoots out the cannon-ball – ‘The sight of its fury and the sound of its roar will seem like a miracle.’38 There is always a sense of drama in his military machines: the ‘theatre of war’. Elsewhere there are muscular toiling workmen, and a soldier grappling up the side of a wall. All this connects with Leonardo’s continuing aspiration towards the role of architect and engineer to the Sforza.

And flying is still much on his mind. MS B has the first detailed designs for the classic Leonardo flying-machine, correctly called an ornithopter – a machine using the principles of a bird’s flight, as distinct from the helicopter, which uses the principle of the helix or screw. (The second element of these words is from Greek pteron, wing.) A thrilling series of drawings, running from folios 73 to 79, is thought by some to be the most coherent of all his flying-machine designs.39 They include two versions of the ‘horizontal ornithopter’, in which the pilot lies prone with the wing-apparatus on his back, using pedals and handles to work the wings up and down, and operating directional controls by means of cords and levers. In the drawing on folio 75, Leonardo adds the innovation of ‘the rudder mounted on the neck’ – a long, finned tail with a rope or connecting-bar running the length of the craft to a brace round the pilot’s neck. On folio 79 he sketches out a different horizontal ornithopter, but this is more complicated and less plausible than the previous version, and then over the page we come to the more fantastical-looking ‘vertical ornithopter’, in which the pilot stands upright within a nacelle or cockpit, operating four giant wings that give the craft the look of a dragonfly. The two pairs of wings ‘beat criss-cross, the way a horse moves’. The pilot uses his head, as well as his hands and feet, to move the sliding wing-mechanisms: the head, Leonardo estimates, ‘will have a strength equal to 200 pounds’. The cockpit would be 20 braccia (about 40 feet) long; the wing-span 40 braccia. A later folio shows the launch-pad: a platform on retractable ladders, 20 braccia high. (This number and its multiples recur throughout the flying-machine experiments.) The bird analogy is at work here too: ‘See the swift, which put on the ground cannot take off because it has short legs… These ladders serve as legs.’40



The ornithopter. Flying-machine designs from Paris MS B, showing horizontal and vertical versions.

As with the military machinery, the word ‘sci-fi’ springs to mind – not to mention ‘Heath Robinson’. Were these machines ever built, or are they elaborate pipe-dreams? None of these drawings, notes Martin Kemp, ‘is wholly resolved, complete and unambiguous’; they ‘constitute an unfinished debate about ways and means’.41 But it was not all theory – a dramatic drawing on the verso of folio 88 shows a huge artificial wing undergoing trials. A man struggles to work a wooden lever which causes the wing to flap. The instructions read:

If you want to test the wings properly make a wing from paper, mounted on a structure of net and cane, 20 braccia long and the same length broad. Attach it to a plank weighing 200 pounds, and apply a sudden force, as shown above, and if the 200 pound plank is lifted before the wing comes back down you can count the trial a success. Be sure that the force is rapid.

He concludes laconically, ‘If the desired effect is not achieved, do not waste any more time on it.’42

Elsewhere Leonardo contemplates a prototypical helicopter: if ‘this screwed instrument’ is turned rapidly, he writes, ‘the screw will find its female in the air and will climb upward’. Like the parachute, the blades of this primitive helicopter should be covered with ‘linen starched to stop up its pores’.43

Flying-machines and weaponry, cities and churches, cogs and wheels, geometric figures – and much else: MS B also contains that drawing of a stringed instrument with a monster’s head which has been loosely associated with the lira da braccio which Leonardo brought to Milan a few years earlier. This is on the first of the pages stolen by Libri, folio 91; a related series of knives and scimitars with fantastically carved handles follows on folio 92.

The last page, folio 100 verso, was also the outer cover – when the book was out of its vellum carrying-case – and was thus the receptacle, over the years, of scribbles and lists and doodles: a miscellany of moments in the studiolo or study of Leonardo da Vinci. In the top left-hand corner is a numerical calculation, probably of money; to the right of it is a list of words, of which one (sorbire) is destined for a Latin word-list in another notebook, the Trivulzio Codex. Then comes a memorandum list of mostly cryptic import ending, ‘Ask Maestro Lodovicho for the water pipes, the small oven, the tinderbox, the perpetual motion [machine?], the small bellows, the forge-bellows.’44 Below this are three rows of hieroglyphs of vaguely Hebraic aspect and then, further down, four rapid sketches showing a moth, a bat, a dragonfly and a butterfly. Beneath the bat, before the long tear in the lower left-hand corner begins, are the words ‘animale che fuge dell’uno elemento nell’altro’ – a beautiful and typically Leonardian synopsis of flight: ‘animal that flees from one element into another’. In the lower right-hand corner is a sketched figure which Marinoni describes as ‘a cloaked man in an act of reverence’, but the face is comically drawn, and he seems less to be kneeling in reverence than crouching. His hand reaches out to grasp the lower part of the bat’s wing, which has itself been doodled and cross-hatched, giving it a certain fleshiness, so the grasping or groping figure takes on a faintly lecherous aspect, and is certainly a potential impediment to the winged creature so keen to ‘flee’ to another element. He seems to belong with the Virtue–Envy, Pleasure–Pain conflict of the Oxford allegories: he is what drags you back down. Such are the unconscious patterns caught in the nap of this old notebook-cover.

There are two other notebooks which belong to this first period, conventionally dated c. 1487–90. One is a small pocket-book which is part of the Forster codices in the Victoria & Albert Museum.45 It deals with Archimedean screws or cocleae (literally snail-shells) to raise water, and other hydraulic machines. It has a number of chemical recipes, which perhaps reflect the presence of Zoroastro, or ‘Maestro Tommaso’ as Leonardo calls him in 1492. It investigates the enigma of perpetual motion, a subject he later dismissed as an illusion, the fruit of ‘superstizione’, on a par with the chimerical gold-making dreams of the alchemist.

The other early notebook is the Codex Trivulzianus or Trivulzio Codex. It is named after the Milanese family which owned it in the eighteenth century; there is no specific connection with Giangiacomo Trivulzio, the Renaissance condottiere whom Leonardo knew. It shares with its contemporary MS B an interest in architecture, and it contains some witty caricatures – among the earliest of the grotesques which become a fascinating sub-genre of Leonardo’s drawings – but what fills most of its pages is a painstaking series of Latin vocabulary lists. Hundreds of words are listed and when necessary translated into Italian: this is a crash-course in what was still the international language of learning and philosophy. We have a sense of labour, of homework, of punishing schedules.

On an early page of the Trivulzio Codex46 is a column of five words, as follows:






At first glance this looks like another vocab list, but it is not. The words are abbreviated book-titles. There is no heading, so we don’t know for sure that these are books that Leonardo owns, but as all of them occur in later book-lists, which are certainly inventories of his library, it seems that this is indeed the earliest known account of the books on Leonardo’s shelf. Are these his only books at this time? It is not unlikely: printed books were expensive, still something of an innovation. They were not always welcomed by the bibliophiles of the day: the Florentine bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci praised the Duke of Urbino’s library of manuscripts, ‘beautifully illuminated and bound in silver and scarlet’, then added, ‘Had there been one printed volume there, it would have been ashamed in such company!’47 Leonardo’s later lists suggest a rapid acquisition of books – a list in the Codex Atlanticus, which belongs to the early 1490s, enumerates forty books, while the famous Madrid inventory of 1504 contains 116 volumes.

The five books of the Trivulzian list are a snapshot of his interests in the late 1480s. Donato refers to a popular book of Latin grammar and syntax, De octo partibus orationis, by Aelius Donatus; there were numerous editions in the fifteenth century, and in fact the term donato became a standard shorthand for any Latin grammar-book (and donatello, a little Donato, for an elementary grammar-book). Its presence here ties in with the Latin vocabulary lists.

The term lapidario is too vague to identify with certainty: it is some kind of manual about precious stones and minerals. The nineteenth-century bibliophile Count Girolamo d’Adda – the first to study Leonardo’s reading systematically – thought it might be an Italian translation of the Liber lapidum (Book of Stones) written by a twelfth-century French bishop, Marbodeus. This book, also called De gemmis (Concerning Gems), particularly treats of the medicinal properties of precious stones.48

Plinio undoubtedly refers to the Historia naturalis of Pliny the Elder, the observant, scholarly, credulous author who was killed in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. His Natural History was an immensely popular repository of classical knowledge and lore, covering geography, natural science, inventions and the arts. He was a native of Como, and was considered a local hero in Lombardy. The edition Leonardo owned was probably the Italian translation by Cristoforo Landino, published in Venice in 1476. Leonardo had probably known Landino in Florence.

Dabacho (i.e. d’abaco) is again too broad a term: the word ‘abacus’ in this context could mean any book of arithmetic. There was a well-known Trattato d’abaco by Paolo Dagomari, but this was aged. A more up-to-date work was the Nobel opera de arithmeticaby Piero Borgi da Venezia, published in 1484; Leonardo refers elsewhere to ‘Maestro Piero dal Borgo’.

Morgante takes us back again to Florence, to the popular romantic epic by Luigi Pulci, the scurrilously irreligious friend of Lorenzo de’ Medici and Benedetto Dei. This burlesque, slangy work – in a style not unlike that of Antonio Cammelli, though more sustained and subtle in form – appeared in two stages. The longer, 28-canto, version, known as the Morgante maggiore, was published in Florence in 1482. Leonardo quotes from it more than once; it is also likely he took from it the nickname Salai – meaning ‘Little Devil’ – which he gave to his wayward young Milanese apprentice Giacomo Caprotti.

Grammar, natural science, mathematics, poetry: a small row of books on the autodidact’s shelf, but as we have seen, this is only the beginning of Leonardo’s bibliophilia. The book-list written in red chalk on a sheet in the Codex Atlanticus seems to belong to about 1492: on the verso of it are some notes which are transcribed almost verbatim in Paris MS A, which is of this date.49 By this time, perhaps five years after the minimal Trivulzian list, Leonardo’s library has increased to thirty-seven books. (There are forty items listed, but the three volumes of the Decades of Livy are given as three separate works, and the Epistles of Filelfo is mentioned twice.)

Broadly speaking, of these thirty-seven books six are philosophical and religious in nature, fifteen are scientific and technical texts, and sixteen are literary works. The first category includes the Bible, the Psalms, a Lives of the Philosophers and a work identified as ‘de immortalita d’anima,’ which is almost certainly an Italian version of Ficino’s Theologia platonica, published in Latin in 1481 with the sub-title ‘De animarum immortalitate’. The scientific works are predictably various – works on mathematics, military science, agriculture, surgery, law, music, chiromancy and precious stones, and three separate books on health. (Does one discern a note of hypochondria?) It is the abundance of the literary category which is perhaps the surprise. Admittedly the category is broad: I have included among the literary texts three books on grammar and rhetoric, which are about how to write, and one travel book (an edition of ‘Giovan di Mandivilla’ or John de Mandeville) which is certainly more fiction than fact. The rest are an impressive collection of prose and poetry, including classical works by Aesop, Livy and Ovid, an edition of Petrarch, the sub-Dantesque Quadriregio by the Dominican friar Federigo Frezzi, the prose collection called the Fiore di virtù, the bawdy doggerel Il Manganello, the burlesque poems of ‘Il Burchiello’, the Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, the Epistles of Filelfo, the Driadeo by Luca Pulci, and the Morgante by his brother Luigi Pulci – the latter presumably the copy listed in the Trivulzio notebook. These are books read for pleasure, for much-needed relaxation.

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