Leonardo da Vinci: the Codex Leicester

6 September - 5 November 2000

Leonardo da Vinci was an engineer, architect, designer, inventor, scientist, painter and sculptor.

While he is best known as an artist – the man who painted the Mona Lisa – he actually spent more time on scientific projects than on painting. As few as 15 paintings are definitely attributed to Leonardo, but there are copious drawings and many notebooks documenting his varied interests.

Leonardo’s notebooks equal the importance of his paintings. They are perhaps the greatest literary legacy any artist has bequeathed to the world.

Leonardo da Vinci: the Codex Leicester – notebook of a genius allowed a rare insight into one of history’s most celebrated minds.

Leonardo’s voluminous notebooks occupied him throughout his life. In them he planned to treat four major themes: the science of painting, architecture, the elements of mechanics, and a general work on human anatomy. To these themes were eventually added notes on his studies of botany, geology, flight, and hydrology. His intention was to combine all his investigations with a unified world view.

It is estimated that a third of Leonardo’s notebooks, 31 in all, survive. Leonardo compiled the Codex Leicester in Milan between 1506 and 1510. He wrote in sepia ink on 18 double-sided sheets of loose-leaf, linen paper, each one folded to make a total of 72 pages. In several places Leonardo addresses ‘the reader’.

The notebooks were distinctive for two reasons: his use of ‘mirror writing’ and the link between illustration and text. Although his language was clear and expressive, Leonardo preferred illustration to the written word. ‘The more detail you write concerning it the more you will confuse the reader,’ he said.