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