The Mystery of Leonardo

Leonardo da Vinci on Painting: A Lost Book (Libro A)

reassembled, translated, and edited by Carlo Pedretti, with a Foreword by Sir Kenneth Clark
California, 280 pp., $12.00

Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood

by Sigmund Freud, translated by Alan Tyson
Norton, 112 pp., $3.50

Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci; drawing by David Levine

Among the manuscripts of Leonardo da Vinci at the British Museum there is a famous and pathetic note written by the master in his fifty-sixth year:

Begun in Florence in the house of Piero de Braccio Martelli on March 22nd, 1508. And this is to be a collection without order, taken from many papers which I have copied here, hoping to arrange them later according to their proper place under the subjects of which they will treat. And I believe that before I shall be through with this, I shall have to repeat one and the same thing several times. Hence, reader, do not curse me, for the subjects are many and memory cannot hold them and say “I do not want to write this, since I wrote it before.” And if I did not want to fall into this error it would be necessary for me always to reread all that had gone before before I copied anything, to avoid repetition, particularly since the intervals are long between one time of writing and the next.

The master’s forebodings were justified. He never succeeded in bringing order into his vast collection of papers and so posterity had to struggle with that awe-inspiring legacy of notes, jottings, drafts, excerpts, and memoranda in which personal trivia alternate with observations on optics, geology, anatomy, the behavior of wind and water, the mechanics of pulleys and the geometry of intersecting circles, the growth of plants or the statics of buildings, all jostling each other on sheets that may contain sublime drawings, absent-minded doodles, coarse fables, and subtle prose-poems.

It is one of the permanent gains we owe to Professor Pedretti’s new book that we now know a little more about Leonardo’s own procedures in his attempts to subdue this chaos, and about the efforts of his faithful heirs to succeed where he had failed. It had always been known that it was only after Leonardo’s death that systematic attempts were made to retrieve at least one co-herent group of notes from his literary remains, those directly or indirectly concerned with problems of painting. The resulting selection is known as the Codex Urbinas in the Vatican and it was this arrangement that formed the basis for all subsequent publications of what came to be known as Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting. By careful detective work on this manuscript (which was published in facsimile and translation by A. P. MacMohon in 1956) Professor Pedretti can make a convincing case for the authorship of this priceless compilation. He attributes it to none other than Leonardo’s companion and legal heir Francesco Melzi; moreover he shows that in this difficult work of sorting and copying Melzi adopted procedures which Leonardo himself developed. The original notes were marked with various signets cancelled as soon as they were entered into a fresh notebook. This demonstration alone adds much authority to…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.