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Leonardo’s Notebooks

How far are the machines illustrated Leonardo’s own inventions? The question is unanswerable because the craftsmen of the late Middle Ages kept their secrets to themselves and did not commit them to paper. But it is clear from references to German craftsmen, in particular Guilio Tedesco, that Leonardo looked to the north for technical innovation, and the character of the drawings in Madrid I suggests records of things seen rather than of inventions. It could be described as an illustrated guide to late medieval technology. To the layman its interest lies chiefly in the delicate precision of Leonardo’s drawings and in the evidence it provides that a man of such creative energy could be so patient.

Madrid Codex II is entirely different, and for the general student of Leonardo considerably more interesting. On the very first page is one of the best “shot-rang-out” openings in history.

Friday the 6th of June at the stroke of the 13th hour I started to paint in the Palace. As I lowered my brush the weather changed for the worse and the bell began to toll calling the men to the courtyard. The cartoon was torn, water poured down…. Suddenly the weather became even worse and it rained very heavily till nightfall. The day turned to night.

The passage, in addition to its dramatic quality, tells us two most interesting facts about Leonardo: the day and hour when he started the painting of the Battle of Anghiari in the Palazzo Vecchio, and that the cartoon was damaged by a storm.

Three pages later comes another rich haul for the Leonardist, a list of 116 books in Leonardo’s possession which he left in a chest in a monastery, probably when he went from Florence to Piombino in 1502. There is another list of forty of his books in the Codex Atlanticus. Scholars, like Solmi, have deduced from references in Leonardo’s MSS a large number of the books he had read and sometimes copied into his notebooks, but the Madrid list contains some real surprises. There are, for example, far more books of devotion and Christian philosophy than we could ever have inferred from his writings: works of S. Bernardino, St. Isidore, St. Ambrose, the sermons of St. Augustine—what had the “disciple of experience” to do with these? Dr. Reti has looked for the editions in which Leonardo is likely to have read and has discovered that the majority were translations into Italian; in spite of a lot of hard work, and the presence of several Latin grammar and word books on the list, Leonardo was never at ease with the Latin language, which can be the only reason (for he read prodigiously) why he could describe himself as a man without letters. After the list of books comes a list of clothes, including three garments in the French style that belonged to Salai—one of them given by Cesare Borgia.

In the next pages Leonardo addresses himself to the thankless task of diverting the River Arno as part of the Florentine campaign against Pisa. I used to think that this impossible undertaking was an example of Leonardo’s lack of realism, but it now seems that the plan was put forward by the archrealist Machiavelli, who persuaded Leonardo to attempt it. Leonardo’s text is concerned chiefly with the cost, but, fortunately for us, he also did ten landscape drawings, exquisitely delicate, and entirely naturalistic, which show that the landscape background of the Mona Lisa (probably painted at about the same time) was a construction of art.

A good deal of Madrid II will be of interest only to the specialist. In twenty-six pages he copies out extracts from a treatise on fortification by the Sienese architect Francesco di Giorgio; twenty-five pages are devoted to the subject of squaring the circle, an exercise that seemed important to Renaissance mathematicians, and had an obsessive interest for Leonardo. It was the principal subject in the edition of Archimedes by Pomponius Gauricus published in 1503.

On November 30, 1504, he writes a hasty, vivid scrawl: “Tonight I finally found the quadrature of the circle, as the light of the candle and the night and the paper on which I was writing were coming to an end.” The diagrams that support this statement are particularly unconvincing, and Leonardo seems to have returned to his problem next day.

Finally comes what is in effect a different MS, bound up with Madrid II for convenience, but written between 1491 and 1494. This is an account of Leonardo’s problems in casting the gigantic horse which was to be a monument to Francesco, founder of the House of Sforza. The monument was already in Leonardo’s mind when he wrote his original letter from Florence recommending himself to Ludovico, and was probably the chief reason for his entering Ludovico’s service. The horse was to be four times life size, and for some reason Leonardo determined to cast it all in one piece. Anyone familiar with Cellini’s account of the casting of the Perseus, a much smaller model, will remember the difficulties this method involves, which in Cellini’s case ended with panic.

No large equestrian statue was cast in one piece until Girardon’s Louis XIV, almost 200 years later, and it seems very doubtful whether Leonardo would have succeeded, even if his master’s fortunes had not declined and the bronze collected for the horse been sent to the Duke of Ferrara to be made into cannon. But his notes on the subject are among the most impressive examples of how Leonardo could apply his mind to a technical problem, and they end with a marvelous red chalk drawing for the protective casing of the mold of the horse’s head, which is visually the most striking thing to come out of the Madrid Codices. Incidentally, Dr. Reti, in his volume of commentary, simply refers to these pages as “notes on casting,” and does not mention the Sforza horse at all. I have no “inside knowledge,” but cannot help feeling that this extraordinary omission must be due to declining health, which might also account for a certain meagerness in his notes to the MSS to which I have already referred.

The McGraw-Hill Book Company, in undertaking this splendid and scrupulous publication of the two codices, must have realized that they would have only a limited appeal. They therefore decided to accompany their five aristocratic volumes of text and transcription with a large popular volume of exposition, which they have entitled The Unknown Leonardo. They invited ten eminent Leonardists to write on various aspects of his work which are illustrated or amplified by the Madrid Codices. In this way they intended to put the new discoveries into relation with Leonardo’s work as a whole, and make it more generally accessible.

The first impression of this book will alarm or distress the serious student, since the material is presented with all the devices of pictorial journalism. Plates overlap each other, paper changes color, enlarged details of drawings and unconvincing “portraits” of contemporaries fill the margins, and the texts of the ten scholars are often overwhelmed by the surrounding marginalia. A number of the color plates seem to be unnecessary and have been included only in order to promote a festive atmosphere in what would otherwise be a somewhat forbidding occasion.

But when one has accepted this kermesse héroïque atmosphere, the book turns out to have great merits and to have been conceived with considerable imagination. Among the color plates and “double spreads” are a few that any student of Leonardo will be glad to have, for example the beautiful plan of Imola, or the incredible opening in the Codex Atlanticus that contains 169 formulas for squaring a semicircle, with accompanying notes, and ends in pure pattern making, a sheet that seems more than any other to illustrate the almost insane industry with which Leonardo would concentrate on his obsessions. The marginal drawings are well annotated, and often make up for the lack of commentary in the severe presentation of the codices.

Inevitably, given the content of Madrid I, a majority of the scholarly articles are concerned with technique and mechanics. There is an admirable piece on the military architect by that stalwart Leonardist, Dr. Ludwig H. Heydenreich; there is an essay on horology which, to an ignoramus on this important topic, is fascinating. There are several articles on machines on which the art historian cannot pass judgment. There is even an extremely interesting article “Leonardo and Music.” Contemporary evidence leaves us in no doubt about his skill as a performer on the lira da braccio; the references to music in Leonardo’s MSS are spare and scattered, but they do contain the sublime definition, “figurazione delle cose invisibili.” As the visual arts play so little part in the Madrid Codices, it is to be expected that the articles on Leonardo as a painter and art theorist are less satisfying, and surely someone could have prevented a colored detail of the landscape of the Borghese Leda from appearing as an illustration to Professor André Chastel’s article.

To anyone interested in the whole phenomenon of Leonardo far the most interesting section of the book is that entitled “The Writer,” by Augusto Marinoni. The author has already shown himself the most perceptive and imaginative of all Leonardo scholars (with the possible exception of Zhubov, who had, unfortunately, no opportunity to study the drawings and MSS in the originals), and in this article he makes no concessions to the slightly euphoric spirit in which the rest of the book is composed. He not only recognizes that Leonardo, with his artisan-craftsman education, never mastered Latin, but also that “the preparation he had received in the field of mathematical sciences…was very inadequate. He was never very good at calculation, and even in terms of the knowledge of concepts the gaps in his education were far from insignificant.” Any fair-minded student of Leonardo will confirm this, and it is a tragedy that after the Battle of Anghiari he should have recorded his interest in life and movement no longer through drawings of life but through machines and mathematics.

As he matured,” says Bern Dibner, the author of one of the articles in this volume, “the machine and its parts became the language of his involvement in the world.” This is too pessimistic. Leonardo was also driven on by two demons, the belief that the certainties could be stated only by mathematics, and the belief that every form of life could be stated in geometrical terms. This demoniacal possession owed its power to Leonardo’s intuition that both these propositions would ultimately be proved to be correct. And so they have. Modern science has stated almost all branches of knowledge, even biology, in mathematical terms; and high magnification has shown that the majority of organisms are made up of geometric particles. But Leonardo had not even a microscope. It took centuries before his inspired guesses were demonstrable, and so the attempts to prove his intuitive certainties ended in frustration, or, what was worse, in pointless mathematical games.

The reading of Leonardo’s original MSS, as opposed to edited extracts such as those of Richter or MacCurdy, is a depressing task. This marvelous brain, this inexhaustible energy, seems to be wasting itself three quarters of the time in futile exercises and innumerable repetitions. And yet one must labor on because every now and then a single sentence will reveal such an extraordinary intuition that one is left breathless. All the same, one may be allowed to wish that he had drawn more and written less.


Leonardo Mystery March 20, 1975

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