The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci

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Preface / Volume I Contents / Page 1

The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci

Translated by Jean Paul Richter



A singular fatality has ruled the destiny of nearly all the most
famous of Leonardo da Vinci's works. Two of the three most important
were never completed, obstacles having arisen during his life-time,
which obliged him to leave them unfinished; namely the Sforza
Monument and the Wall-painting of the Battle of Anghiari, while the
third--the picture of the Last Supper at Milan--has suffered
irremediable injury from decay and the repeated restorations to
which it was recklessly subjected during the XVIIth and XVIIIth
centuries. Nevertheless, no other picture of the Renaissance has
become so wellknown and popular through copies of every description.

Vasari says, and rightly, in his Life of Leonardo, "that he laboured
much more by his word than in fact or by deed", and the biographer
evidently had in his mind the numerous works in Manuscript which
have been preserved to this day. To us, now, it seems almost
inexplicable that these valuable and interesting original texts
should have remained so long unpublished, and indeed forgotten. It
is certain that during the XVIth and XVIIth centuries their
exceptional value was highly appreciated. This is proved not merely
by the prices which they commanded, but also by the exceptional
interest which has been attached to the change of ownership of
merely a few pages of Manuscript.

That, notwithstanding this eagerness to possess the Manuscripts,
their contents remained a mystery, can only be accounted for by the
many and great difficulties attending the task of deciphering them.
The handwriting is so peculiar that it requires considerable
practice to read even a few detached phrases, much more to solve
with any certainty the numerous difficulties of alternative
readings, and to master the sense as a connected whole. Vasari
observes with reference to Leonardos writing: "he wrote backwards,
in rude characters, and with the left hand, so that any one who is
not practised in reading them, cannot understand them". The aid of a
mirror in reading reversed handwriting appears to me available only
for a first experimental reading. Speaking from my own experience,
the persistent use of it is too fatiguing and inconvenient to be
practically advisable, considering the enormous mass of Manuscripts
to be deciphered. And as, after all, Leonardo's handwriting runs
backwards just as all Oriental character runs backwards--that is
to say from right to left--the difficulty of reading direct from the
writing is not insuperable. This obvious peculiarity in the writing
is not, however, by any means the only obstacle in the way of
mastering the text. Leonardo made use of an orthography peculiar to
himself; he had a fashion of amalgamating several short words into
one long one, or, again, he would quite arbitrarily divide a long
word into two separate halves; added to this there is no punctuation
whatever to regulate the division and construction of the sentences,
nor are there any accents--and the reader may imagine that such
difficulties were almost sufficient to make the task seem a
desperate one to a beginner. It is therefore not surprising that the
good intentions of some of Leonardo s most reverent admirers should
have failed.

Leonardos literary labours in various departments both of Art and of
Science were those essentially of an enquirer, hence the analytical
method is that which he employs in arguing out his investigations
and dissertations. The vast structure of his scientific theories is
consequently built up of numerous separate researches, and it is
much to be lamented that he should never have collated and arranged
them. His love for detailed research--as it seems to me--was the
reason that in almost all the Manuscripts, the different paragraphs
appear to us to be in utter confusion; on one and the same page,
observations on the most dissimilar subjects follow each other
without any connection. A page, for instance, will begin with some
principles of astronomy, or the motion of the earth; then come the
laws of sound, and finally some precepts as to colour. Another page
will begin with his investigations on the structure of the
intestines, and end with philosophical remarks as to the relations
of poetry to painting; and so forth.

Leonardo himself lamented this confusion, and for that reason I do
not think that the publication of the texts in the order in which
they occur in the originals would at all fulfil his intentions. No
reader could find his way through such a labyrinth; Leonardo himself
could not have done it.

Added to this, more than half of the five thousand manuscript pages
which now remain to us, are written on loose leaves, and at present
arranged in a manner which has no justification beyond the fancy of
the collector who first brought them together to make volumes of
more or less extent. Nay, even in the volumes, the pages of which
were numbered by Leonardo himself, their order, so far as the
connection of the texts was concerned, was obviously a matter of
indifference to him. The only point he seems to have kept in view,
when first writing down his notes, was that each observation should
be complete to the end on the page on which it was begun. The
exceptions to this rule are extremely few, and it is certainly
noteworthy that we find in such cases, in bound volumes with his
numbered pages, the written observations: "turn over", "This is the
continuation of the previous page", and the like. Is not this
sufficient to prove that it was only in quite exceptional cases that
the writer intended the consecutive pages to remain connected, when
he should, at last, carry out the often planned arrangement of his

What this final arrangement was to be, Leonardo has in most cases
indicated with considerable completeness. In other cases this
authoritative clue is wanting, but the difficulties arising from
this are not insuperable; for, as the subject of the separate
paragraphs is always distinct and well defined in itself, it is
quite possible to construct a well-planned whole, out of the
scattered materials of his scientific system, and I may venture to
state that I have devoted especial care and thought to the due
execution of this responsible task.

The beginning of Leonardo's literary labours dates from about his
thirty-seventh year, and he seems to have carried them on without
any serious interruption till his death. Thus the Manuscripts that
remain represent a period of about thirty years. Within this space
of time his handwriting altered so little that it is impossible to
judge from it of the date of any particular text. The exact dates,
indeed, can only be assigned to certain note-books in which the year
is incidentally indicated, and in which the order of the leaves has
not been altered since Leonardo used them. The assistance these
afford for a chronological arrangement of the Manuscripts is
generally self evident. By this clue I have assigned to the original
Manuscripts now scattered through England, Italy and France, the
order of their production, as in many matters of detail it is highly
important to be able to verify the time and place at which certain
observations were made and registered. For this purpose the
Bibliography of the Manuscripts given at the end of Vol. II, may be
regarded as an Index, not far short of complete, of all Leonardo s
literary works now extant. The consecutive numbers (from 1 to 1566)
at the head of each passage in this work, indicate their logical
sequence with reference to the subjects; while the letters and
figures to the left of each paragraph refer to the original
Manuscript and number of the page, on which that particular passage
is to be found. Thus the reader, by referring to the List of
Manuscripts at the beginning of Volume I, and to the Bibliography at
the end of Volume II, can, in every instance, easily ascertain, not
merely the period to which the passage belongs, but also exactly
where it stood in the original document. Thus, too, by following the
sequence of the numbers in the Bibliographical index, the reader may
reconstruct the original order of the Manuscripts and recompose the
various texts to be found on the original sheets--so much of it,
that is to say, as by its subject-matter came within the scope of
this work. It may, however, be here observed that Leonardo s
Manuscripts contain, besides the passages here printed, a great
number of notes and dissertations on Mechanics, Physics, and some
other subjects, many of which could only be satisfactorily dealt
with by specialists. I have given as complete a review of these
writings as seemed necessary in the Bibliographical notes.

In 1651, Raphael Trichet Dufresne, of Paris, published a selection
from Leonardo's writings on painting, and this treatise became so
popular that it has since been reprinted about two-and-twenty times,
and in six different languages. But none of these editions were
derived from the original texts, which were supposed to have been
lost, but from early copies, in which Leonardo's text had been more
or less mutilated, and which were all fragmentary. The oldest and on
the whole the best copy of Leonardo's essays and precepts on
Painting is in the Vatican Library; this has been twice printed,
first by Manzi, in 1817, and secondly by Ludwig, in 1882. Still,
this ancient copy, and the published editions of it, contain much
for which it would be rash to hold Leonardo responsible, and some
portions--such as the very important rules for the proportions of
the human figure--are wholly wanting; on the other hand they contain
passages which, if they are genuine, cannot now be verified from any
original Manuscript extant. These copies, at any rate neither give
us the original order of the texts, as written by Leonardo, nor do
they afford any substitute, by connecting them on a rational scheme;
indeed, in their chaotic confusion they are anything rather than
satisfactory reading. The fault, no doubt, rests with the compiler
of the Vatican copy, which would seem to be the source whence all
the published and extensively known texts were derived; for, instead
of arranging the passages himself, he was satisfied with recording a
suggestion for a final arrangement of them into eight distinct
parts, without attempting to carry out his scheme. Under the
mistaken idea that this plan of distribution might be that, not of
the compiler, but of Leonardo himself, the various editors, down to
the present day, have very injudiciously continued to adopt this
order--or rather disorder.

I, like other enquirers, had given up the original Manuscript of the
Trattato della Pittura for lost, till, in the beginning of 1880, I
was enabled, by the liberality of Lord Ashburnham, to inspect his
Manuscripts, and was so happy as to discover among them the original
text of the best-known portion of the Trattato in his magnificent
library at Ashburnham Place. Though this discovery was of a fragment
only--but a considerable fragment--inciting me to further search,
it gave the key to the mystery which had so long enveloped the first
origin of all the known copies of the Trattato. The extensive
researches I was subsequently enabled to prosecute, and the results
of which are combined in this work, were only rendered possible by
the unrestricted permission granted me to investigate all the
Manuscripts by Leonardo dispersed throughout Europe, and to
reproduce the highly important original sketches they contain, by
the process of "photogravure". Her Majesty the Queen graciously
accorded me special permission to copy for publication the
Manuscripts at the Royal Library at Windsor. The Commission Centrale
Administrative de l'Institut de France, Paris, gave me, in the most
liberal manner, in answer to an application from Sir Frederic
Leighton, P. R. A., Corresponding member of the Institut, free
permission to work for several months in their private collection at
deciphering the Manuscripts preserved there. The same favour which
Lord Ashburnham had already granted me was extended to me by the
Earl of Leicester, the Marchese Trivulsi, and the Curators of the
Ambrosian Library at Milan, by the Conte Manzoni at Rome and by
other private owners of Manuscripts of Leonardo's; as also by the
Directors of the Louvre at Paris; the Accademia at Venice; the
Uffizi at Florence; the Royal Library at Turin; and the British
Museum, and the South Kensington Museum. I am also greatly indebted
to the Librarians of these various collections for much assistance
in my labours; and more particularly to Monsieur Louis Lalanne, of
the Institut de France, the Abbate Ceriani, of the Ambrosian
Library, Mr. Maude Thompson, Keeper of Manuscripts at the British
Museum, Mr. Holmes, the Queens Librarian at Windsor, the Revd Vere
Bayne, Librarian of Christ Church College at Oxford, and the Revd A.
Napier, Librarian to the Earl of Leicester at Holkham Hall.

In correcting the Italian text for the press, I have had the
advantage of valuable advice from the Commendatore Giov. Morelli,
Senatore del Regno, and from Signor Gustavo Frizzoni, of Milan. The
translation, under many difficulties, of the Italian text into
English, is mainly due to Mrs. R. C. Bell; while the rendering of
several of the most puzzling and important passages, particularly in
the second half of Vol. I, I owe to the indefatigable interest taken
in this work by Mr. E. J. Poynter R. A. Finally I must express my
thanks to Mr. Alfred Marks, of Long Ditton, who has most kindly
assisted me throughout in the revision of the proof sheets.

The notes and dissertations on the texts on Architecture in Vol. II
I owe to my friend Baron Henri de Geymuller, of Paris.

I may further mention with regard to the illustrations, that the
negatives for the production of the "photo-gravures" by Monsieur
Dujardin of Paris were all taken direct from the originals.

It is scarcely necessary to add that most of the drawings here
reproduced in facsimile have never been published before. As I am
now, on the termination of a work of several years' duration, in a
position to review the general tenour of Leonardos writings, I may
perhaps be permitted to add a word as to my own estimate of the
value of their contents. I have already shown that it is due to
nothing but a fortuitous succession of unfortunate circumstances,
that we should not, long since, have known Leonardo, not merely as a
Painter, but as an Author, a Philosopher, and a Naturalist. There
can be no doubt that in more than one department his principles and
discoveries were infinitely more in accord with the teachings of
modern science, than with the views of his contemporaries. For this
reason his extraordinary gifts and merits are far more likely to be
appreciated in our own time than they could have been during the
preceding centuries. He has been unjustly accused of having
squandered his powers, by beginning a variety of studies and then,
having hardly begun, throwing them aside. The truth is that the
labours of three centuries have hardly sufficed for the elucidation
of some of the problems which occupied his mighty mind.

Alexander von Humboldt has borne witness that "he was the first to
start on the road towards the point where all the impressions of our
senses converge in the idea of the Unity of Nature" Nay, yet more
may be said. The very words which are inscribed on the monument of
Alexander von Humboldt himself, at Berlin, are perhaps the most
appropriate in which we can sum up our estimate of Leonardo's

"Majestati naturae par ingenium."

LONDON, April 1883.

F. P. R.

Preface / Volume I Contents / Page 1