The Notebooks and Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci.


This three-volume treasury of Leonardo’s notes and doodles has been in my possession since 1963, before I left University, and I got them (they were a gift) decades before Dan Brown doubtless caused poor Leo to rotate in his crypt. My editions of The Notebooks and The Drawings were published by the Folio Society, and I see that all three volumes are still available at a modest price via Abe Books. In my opinion, they are excellently commentated and edited by Edward MacCurdy (the notebooks) and A.E.Popham (the drawings).

I don’t know when I first heard of Leonardo the Painter and Leonardo the Renaissance Scientist and Engineer. He seems to have always been in my mind. Before I had left junior school, I knew about the Mona Lisa; I had even seen a Leonardo cartoon on display in Edinburgh. These notebooks, however, opened a window on a number of different Leonardos.

Leonardo the Painting Tutor:

How figures when dressed in a cloak ought not to show the shape to such an extent that the cloak seems to be next to the skin; for surely you would not wish that the cloak should be next the skin, since you must realise that between the cloak and the skin are other garments which prevent the shape of the limbs from being visible and appearing through the cloak. And those limbs which you make visible, make thick of their kind so that there may seem to be other garments there under the cloak. And you should only allow the almost identical thickness of the limbs to be visible in a nymph or an angel, for these are represented clad in light draperies, which by the blowing of the wind are driven and pressed against the various limbs of the figures.

Leonardo the Astrophysicist:

Memorandum that I have first to show the distance of the sun from the earth and by means of one of its rays passing through a small hole into a dark place to discover its exact dimensions, and in addition to this by means of the sphere of water to calculate the size of the earth. And the size of the moon I shall discover as I discover that of the sun, that is by means of its ray at midnight when it is at the full.

Leonardo the Practical Joker:

Close up a room thoroughly and have a brazier of copper or iron with a fire in it, and sprinkle over it two pints of brandy a little at a time in such a way that it may be changed into smoke. Then get someone to come in with a light and you will see the room suddenly wrapped in flame as though it was a flash of lightning, and it will not do any harm to anyone.

Leonardo the Critic-hater:

Those who are inventors and interpreters between Nature and Man as compared with the reciters and trumpeters of the works of others, are to be considered simply as is an object in front of a mirror in comparison with its image when seen in the mirror, the one being something in itself, the other nothing: people whose debt to nature is small, for it seems only by chance that they wear human form, and but for this one might class them with the herds of beasts.

Leonardo the Anatomist:

Nature has placed the principal veins of the leg in the middle of the thickness of the knee joint, because in the process of bending this joint the veins are less compressed than if they were situated in front of or behind the knee.

The notebooks are divided by chronology within subject matter, so that you can see him repeating, refining and revising his opinions on specific subjects. Yes, the man was a genius, but he didn’t get everything right. I’m not convinced by Leonardo the Aeronautical Engineer or Leonardo the Hydrologist, and Leonardo the Munitions Expert verges on the unlikely.

As you would expect, there is something about the tone of the notebooks and the casual nature of many of the drawings that give the reader an insight into Leonardo’s thought processes and which cannot be communicated by his finished work.

This page of cats, for example, contains a pint-sized dragon:

He was quite big on dragons. For example:

His humour appears to have consisted of stuff like this. Any first year medical student would have been proud of Leo:

And sometimes, you just wonder “What was he thinking?”

Woman playing a unicorn like a piano

This, apparently, was some kind of pictographic language:

And I find it hard to believe the scale of this crossbow:

There are over 300 pages of drawings and over 1000 pages of notes in this set. Thrills of pleasure on every page.

Over the years, these books have given me much satisfaction. I was enjoying re-reading them so much for this review that it took me several weeks to put finger to keyboard. Recommended.

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Notebooks and Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci.

  1. Eric

    Fantastic. A brilliant edition. THE essential edition of Leonardo’s beautiful work. If you have not read this, you do not know Leonardo.

    The writer of this article is quite correct to complain of Dan Brown. Not one single thing in the silly Da Vinci Code is correct about Leonardo. Reading the full English translation of his writings by Edward MacCurdy, it becomes clear that Leonardo was an immensely religious man (for instance.) He seems to have been a fairly devout Catholic. I make an example of this here.

    Leonardo says:

    “God sells us all things at the price of labor.”

    “Fame alone raises herself to Heaven, because virtuous things are in favour with God.”

    “We, by our arts may be called the grandsons of God.”

    “Good Report soars and rises to heaven, for virtuous things find favor with God. Evil Report should be shown inverted, for all her works are contrary to God and tend toward hell.”

    “If the Lord—who is the light of all things—vouchsafe to enlighten me, I will treat of Light; wherefore I will divide the present work into 3 Parts . . . Linear Perspective, The Perspective of Colour, The Perspective of Disappearance.”

    “The definition of the soul I leave to the imaginations of the friars, those fathers of the people who know all secrets by inspiration. I leave alone the sacred books; for they are SUPREME TRUTH.” (my emphasis)

    And, near the end of his life, Leonardo wrote:

    “I have offended God and man because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.”

    Taken all together rather than alone, these statements make a compelling case for the “Catholic” Leonardo Da Vinci. There many more such statements in his work. This is just a tiny sampling. Anyone contending that Leonardo was a non-Catholic nature worshipping pagan will have to deal with these writings first. They are formidable indeed.

    Reading the MacCurdy translation of Leonardo’s notes is like reading a medieval religious text. It is PROFOUNDLY Catholic. I am shocked that the religious writings of Leonardo Da Vinci have been so completely ignored and suppressed by the so-called scholars of the world. Virtually nobody mentions them. One has to go back to his original notes to see what he himself was writing.

    There are many other such hidden things that only Leonardo’s notebooks will give you. One is his astounding grasp of stellar phenomenon. Another is his amazingly thorough investigations of physical processes. He must have stared at sand for hours to understand how sound vibrations cause it to move, and in what strange volcanic patterns.

    You will also become aware of his shocking blunders. For example, Leonardo thought the moon was covered with water. This, he thought, explained its luminescence at night. He was wrong about that. But it was a brilliantly reasoned mistake. He arrived at it by a rational process. Many of his other reasoned conclusions are shockingly insightful. (He correctly theorized about why the sky looks blue, for instance.)

    I have barely begun reading this masterpiece. Already I am discovering a person completely different from that portrayed by many other foolish authors and silly scholars – most of whom seem to function according to some agenda other than the truth.

    What a fantastic set of volumes. Read it and be enlightened.

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