The Madrid Codices of Leonardo da Vinci
The Unknown Leonardo
Leonardo da Vinci’s mental and calligraphic energy overflowed into innumerable notebooks; “innumerable” because, although a daunting collection of these notebooks has come down to us, we shall never know how many there were originally. To give three indications of how much is lost: Francesco Melzi, his devoted disciple and heir, transcribed most accurately observations on the art of painting which were scattered throughout the notebooks in order to compile a more or less coherent treatise on the subject, later to be published as the Trattato della Pittura. Of these extracts only about a quarter can still be read in Leonardo’s hand; three quarters were in notebooks now lost.
Melzi’s son, no doubt in reaction against his father’s hero worship, took so little interest in Leonardo that he allowed an enterprising tutor to remove thirteen of the notebooks and try to sell them to the Duke of Florence. When he failed the conscience-stricken tutor offered to return them, but Orazio Melzi said that he was not interested. At this point Leonardo’s MSS and drawings were saved by the admirable sculptor, Pompeo Leoni, who took them with him to Spain, and set about cataloguing and arranging them. He numbered the notebooks from one to forty-six: of these only nineteen have survived. Finally we may observe that, in the list of books which is one of the most fascinating items in the recently discovered Madrid notebooks, Leonardo mentions fifty large and small books, which were apparently contained in his own writings. So the surviving remains of Leonardo’s notes and calculations, which Heaven knows are voluminous enough, are only a fraction of what he bequeathed to Melzi.
This need not arouse the kind of lamentation that is caused by the lost books of Livy or the poems of Sappho. The greater part of Leonardo’s notebooks are remarkably uninteresting in themselves. He was a compulsive notetaker. He would draw and describe anything that he saw, even when he had done so before several times. He was fascinated by mathematics and geometry, and would fill many pages with calculations which are of no interest to mathematicians, and of even less interest to the art historian. He loved to record how things worked, and when his subject is the human body we are interested. But when it is some rather elementary machinery, we are not. The majority of Leonardo’s notebooks are strictly specialist material.
Of course there are exceptions. The vast collection of loose sheets formerly pasted into a volume known as the Codex Atlanticus, and now rearranged in seven volumes, contains many magnificent drawings of machinery and architecture. The notebooks known as MS B in the Bibliothèque de l’Institut are almost our only sources for Leonardo’s ideas on architecture and town planning, and contain in addition some spirited studies of figures in action and exquisite drawings of flowers. One of the small pocket books in the Victoria and Albert Museum contains some ravishing little drawings, and some precious indications of what was passing through his mind while he was planning the Last Supper.
But the serious student cannot afford to skip a single page of the notebooks, because Leonardo had a habit of adding to a page of geometrical calculations or observations of the movement of water a dated note about his own movements, a reminder of someone he had met or even the name of a place; and it is from these clues that our knowledge of his life is being continually enlarged. True, one gradually develops a sixth sense of where such interpolations will occur (often on the first and last pages) and what they will look like (usually isolated or written a traverso). But nothing takes the place of a long slog, and it is an exacting process. At least two eminent Leonardists have gone mad, and several of the others have shown uncomfortable signs of nervous tension. He is too heavy and weighty for any scholar to bear.
In 1965 the world of art scholarship was amazed to read a report that two unknown MSS by Leonardo had been discovered in the National Library of Spain in Madrid. The circumstances of this discovery have never been fully described and are passed over in silence in the present official publication. Their earlier history is clear. They were among the books brought to Spain by Leoni. They passed into the library of a famous collector named Don Juan de Espina, who refused to sell them to the Earl of Arundel, because he was determined to bequeath his whole collection to the king. On his death they were transferred to the Royal Library, and in about 1830 they passed to the National Library, where they were correctly catalogued.
This catalogue entry was noticed in 1898 by Tammaro Marinis, but the books had been given different “call numbers,” and even he, the most tenacious of bibliographers, was not allowed to look for them. Had he done so he would certainly have found them, as one of the volumes actually had the name of Leonardo da Vinci on the spine. He was definitely told that they were lost, or perhaps exchanged for something more important. However, he always maintained in private that they must be somewhere in the library.
The story of the “discovery” as it was told to me at the time was that a young American student of early Spanish literature working in the library sent in an application form with a call number that produced one of the Leonardo codices. Although not a scholar of Leonardo, he saw what it was, and contrived to take microfilms of the pages, which he sent back to his university in America. There could be no question of their authenticity. From this point forward the episode became overlaid by layer upon layer of untruth. The Spanish librarians maintained that Codex Madrid I had been included unlabeled in an exhibition of scientific MSS in 1965, but this, if true, would make their position even more indefensible, for to exhibit an unknown Leonardo MS without drawing attention to it or inviting Leonardo scholars to inspect it is almost incredible.
Gradually, I suppose, the full implications of the event dawned on the authorities, and their state of mind could be made the subject of an interesting short story. Their dilemma was unenviable, but they still held the trump card; the MSS could not be published without their permission, and this they would not give unless credit for the discovery was given to the Keeper of MSS. This condition is loyally observed in the present publication. A full examination of the circumstances of the discovery took place in 1967 under the chairmanship of Dr. Kristeller; the findings were put into a sealed envelope and are not to be disclosed for thirty years.
In due course the Madrid authorities recognized that the codices must be inspected by some competent person, and invited Dr. Ladislao Reti. He was an expert on Leonardo’s studies of machinery, and had a good knowledge of Leonardo’s notebooks in general. He had no hesitation in saying that the two Madrid codices were authentic works of the highest importance. Several other Leonardo scholars visited Madrid, but when, after complicated negotiations, the final permission to publish the book was given, the editor chosen was still Dr. Reti.
He did the work in an austere and economical manner, which shows him to have been (he died in October, 1973, soon after the edition was completed) a scrupulous scholar as well as an expert on Leonardo’s machinery. His transcription of Leonardo’s texts seems to be uniformly accurate. His concordances and appendixes are excellent, especially that on the list of Leonardo’s books in Madrid II. But it is regrettable that he did not give a short description of the drawings of machinery which occur on practically every page of Codex Madrid I, because although many of them may be quite elementary pieces, to the lay eye their purpose is usually incomprehensible. Altogether his commentaries are rather too sparing: but they are extravagantly amplified in the large book which I shall discuss later.
For the production of the book no praise can be too high. To compare the plates in Madrid I with those treating of a similar subject, MSS A and H in the Institut de France in the old standard edition by Ravaisson Mollien, is to realize that, if sufficient care is taken, modern reproduction can be in an entirely different class from that of the nineteenth century. One soldiered on with those dismal old plates and strained one’s eyes; but one never had any notion of the freshness and sparkle with which Leonardo committed his observations to paper. Even the so-called facsimile of MS B, done in 1960, is (making all allowances for a rougher paper) far less clear and attractive to the eye. When the two codices were first discovered there was some competition among publishers for the right to publish them, and it was fortunate that the commission finally went to a firm strong enough to insist on reproductions of this high quality in spite of what must have been unthinkable expense.
As for the actual contents of the codices: Madrid I is the longest and most systematically arranged of all Leonardo’s notebooks, and contains the most illustrations. Unfortunately it is limited to the subject of machinery, and even experts of this branch of Leonardo’s studies find it difficult to maintain their enthusiasm throughout a series of over 300 pages. Many of the drawings are worked-up copies of sketches in other MS material, notably the Codex Atlanticus, Codex Forster, and MS H; and evidently Leonardo began with the intention of making this MS a final summary of his observations on machinery. He was later to plan, and perhaps executed, “final” collections on the subjects of anatomy and painting (the latter brilliantly reconstructed by Carlo Pedretti in his Libro A), but both of these are lost. However, this exceptional effort to achieve order does not go much further than the drawings of the machines.
These were always done first and are exceptionally neat and clear. Beside them was placed, with an unerring sense of design, a column of text which, however, is not always related to the function of the machine. But Leonardo, being what he was, could never resist afterthoughts, so that some of the sheets have lost their aesthetic quality without any gain in intellectual value. About three quarters of the way through the book Leonardo turns from practice to theory, and these pages are actually numbered backward from f. 190 to f. 158. These pages involve more questions than answers, particularly on the problem of gravity, which Leonardo knew was at the heart of all his problems, whether of engineering or of hydraulics, but for which he never could find an explanation that began to satisfy him.