Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks are beautiful works of art in themselves
Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks are the living record of a universal mind. They encompass all the interests and experiments of this self-taught polymath, from mathematics to flying machines. Now the British Library in London has fully digitised its Leonardo manuscript, enabling everyone to freely explore this precious document on a computer screen – at home, in a cafe, wherever. This is in addition to the introductory translated highlights already on offer in its Turning the Pages selection.
Would Leonardo have approved? We think of him as a technophile – designing a diving suit in a drawing in this manuscript, for instance – but when it came to publication, Leonardo was a luddite. The movable type European printing press was invented in Germany in the 15th century and Leonardo owned many printed books – but he made no effort to get his notes published. Why? Was he secretive, or just waiting for the right moment, a moment that never came?
Instead his writings and drawings survived as notes, which he left to his loyal pupil Francesco Melzi. Some of these were in small bound books – the V&A in London has one on permanent display that fits in the palm of an adult hand – while others were on larger sheets that were bound or rebound after Leonardo's death. In time these albums and booklets were sold to royal and wealthy collectors and made their way around the world (though most are in Europe), from the great collection of drawings and scientific studies in the Royal Library, Windsor, to the notebook On the Flight of Birds (with its beguiling digressions on how to build a flying machine) in Turin.
The British Library notebook, one of the posthumous compilations sold to collectors, was probably brought to Britain by the 17th-century art-loving Earl of Arundel, a close friend of Charles I who managed to avoid death in the civil war. In his portrait by Rubens he looks alert, bright, a bit severe. Arundel also got the engraver Wenceslas Hollar to copy some of Leonardo's drawings in one of the first efforts to print his works.
The compilation Arundel apparently imported to Britain and which is now online is a tumultuous, sprawling feast of words and images. It covers many years of Leonardo's life and the astonishing range of his mind as he moves from problems of mechanics to shopping lists. These really are working notes, not a manuscript being readied for publication, and Leonardo has no hesitation in adding a personal reminder or practical memo right in the middle of a sheet of mathematical studies.
In my book about Leonardo, for instance, I open with a detail of his life that should be irrecoverable – his dress sense. My description of his preference for pink tights is possible because in a notebook now in Madrid, he made an inventory of his clothes.
Anyone can study the mind of Leonardo through his notebooks. The digitised British Library collection is just one more step in a process that started in the 19th century when JP Richter transcribed and translated a broad selection from what he called "the literary works of Leonardo da Vinci". Since then many facsimiles and translations have been published.
The digitised British Library manuscript is a fascinating artefact in itself, just to browse. You don't need a translation to appreciate the beauty and wonder of Leonardo's mind. This is a great work of art, in a precociously conceptual genre that has been emulated by modern artists such as Joseph Beuys and Cy Twombly.
But if you do want to get to grips with the detail of Leonardo's ideas, a good place to start is the OUP edition of the Notebooks selected by Irma Richter and updated by Thereza Wells. Meanwhile the works of Martin Kemp offer the most lucid modern dissection of the structures of Leonardo's thought. With these at your side, the sea of words and images the British Library has put online will start to resolve into cogent arguments.Enjoy.