Leonardo da Vinci: reflected in his library

April 30, 2019

Leonardo da Vinci was a tireless and inquisitive reader. He owned more than 200 books about science and technology as well as literary and religious topics. An exhibition organized by the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and the Berlin State Library at the Museo Galileo in Florence  sheds new light on the intellectual cosmos of the artist, engineer, and philosopher, who remains as fascinating as ever 500 years after his death.

The Forster Codices are a collection of Leonardo da Vinci's manuscripts and were part of the library of the writer and biographer John Forster. He bequeathed the work to the South Kensington Museum - now the Victoria and Albert Museum - in London in 1876.

Leonardo da Vinci's life had humble beginnings. Born as the illegitimate son of a 16-year-old family servant in the town of Vinci in Tuscany on 15 April 1452, he was never able to attend a higher school although his father, a lawyer, did later help him secure an apprenticeship with Andrea del Verrocchio, a famous painter based in Florence.

These were circumstances that made Leonardo’s thirst for knowledge all the greater - a thirst he endeavoured to quench by acquiring a large collection of books. “He benefited from the invention of printing in Germany,” said Jürgen Renn, Director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, at a recent symposium in Berlin commemorating the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci's death. Working in Mainz in around 1450, Johannes Gutenberg had broken writing down into its 26 constituent letters and employed reusable matrices to manufacture completely uniform lead types. This enabled him to compose the lines of any text he desired on a wooden board.

Two German nationals – Arnold Pannartz and Konrad Sweynheym – subsequently brought book printing to Italy when Leonardo was twelve years old. They relocated their printing works from the Benedictine monastery of Subiaco to Rome In 1467. The next 30 years saw half a million books being printed in the Holy City alone. There were already 150 printing shops in Italy by the turn of the century.

The first books that Leonardo acquired were written in Italian – Latin texts only came later. Leonardo’s library also contained dictionaries and grammar books that bear witness to his efforts to learn Latin. He later wrote treatises for the fields painting, technology and science that dealt with the details of such subjects as anatomy, botany, mechanics, hydraulics and cosmology. “Leonardo, a Renaissance man par excellence, saw science as an art and art as a science,” said Alessandro Nova, Director at the Art History Institute of the Max Planck Society in Florence.

Not a solitary universal genius

The drawings in the mathematical treatise "De Divina Proportione" by Luca Pacioli from 1498 are attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo later claimed, not without irony and also not without a certain amount of pride, that as a ‘man without learning’ (omo sanza lettere), he himself had written at least 120 books. But none were ever published. His surviving records contain notebooks and thousands of sometimes loose pages that overflowed with sketches, calculations and handwritten remarks. Leonardo was left-handed, which may have been one of the reasons he wrote from right to left in mirror writing, and was always concerned with improving his writing.

We only know about his extensive library from his notes in which he meticulously recorded the volumes he had acquired. These notes are a treasure to art historians who have only recently been able to gain significant insights into them. “His library shows that he was by no means uneducated,” says Carlo Vecce, an expert on Leonardo and the literary scientist who, in conjunction with an international team, pioneered the research into Leonardo’s books. “His library creates the impression of a scholar, artist and scientist and reveals the close relationship he had with his books. He wasn’t a solitary universal genius but was engaged in lively exchanges with the culture of his time and with the famous authors of antiquity and the Renaissance, which Leonardo himself described as altori.”

Just one volume of Leonardo’s original library has survived, the Trattato di architettura e macchine by Francesco di Giorgio – a manuscript that has been annotated by the artist’s own hand and that is now kept at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence. “Scientists have, however, been able reconstruct Leonardo’s treasure trove of books from manuscripts and the references they contain, such as quotations, authors and book titles, as well as from lists of the works in his possession,” said Paolo Galuzzi, Director at the Galileo Museum in Florence.

Leonardo listed a number of names, for example, in one of his notebooks in 1478, including Benedetto de l’Abaco, who taught the use of Arabic numerals, and Maestro Pagolo Medico, Paolo Toscanelli, a doctor, mathematician and important cartographer of his time. This was the cartographer who inspired Columbus to take the western route to India. “The names express Leonardo’s desire to gain access to mathematics and the world of scholars,” said Carlo Vecce. Another of Leonardo’s lists names another 98 books that include Aesop’s fables and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, works from the worlds of art, technology and medicine.

Digital reconstruction of the library and studio

The exhbition ‘Leonardo and his Books’, which is set to run at the Museo Galileo in Florence from 6 June to 22 September 2019 will open at the Staatsbibliothek Berlin next year. It is the first ever presentation of a selection of the most significant texts that Leonardo owned and used. Many works have been made available by the Staatsbibliothek Berlin and the library at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. The exhibition will also be featuring a reconstruction of the studio where Leonardo worked on his drawings, notebooks and other writings.

The computers that have been set up throughout the exhibition will allow visitors to browse through digitalized books and manuscripts and access information about the content of those books and how Leonardo used them. “The exhibition is providing a glimpse into the laboratory in Leonardo’s head, making it possible for visitors to track his continuous development as an artist and scientist,” said Jürgen Renn. All the books that Leonardo possessed along with the respective tables of contents and links to the pages referencing the works in the artist’s notebooks will also be represented in the digital reproduction of the library.

The exhibition is being accompanied by a research project at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science that is being advanced by Antonio Becchi, among others. The show is to centre around the Codex Forster, a manuscript by Leonardo da Vinci, that takes its name from John Forster, the English writer and biographer who left the artefact to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1876. The provenance of the five manuscripts in the Codex's three bindings has still not yet been fully established. Who previously owned the notebooks and how did they change hands? Initial results read like a thriller of the sciences that has yet to be written.

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