Leonardo’s Notebooks

The Madrid Codices of Leonardo da Vinci

edited by Ladislao Reti
McGraw-Hill, 1,700, 5 vols. pp., $750 (deluxe edition)

The Unknown Leonardo

edited by Ladislao Reti
McGraw-Hill, 320, 871 illustrations pp., $34.95

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…

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 nybooks.com account.