Leonardo da Vinci’s Visionary Notebooks Now Online: Browse 570 Digitized Pages

Quick, what do you know about Leonar­do da Vin­ci? He paint­ed the Mona Lisa! He wrote his notes back­wards! He designed super­cool bridges and fly­ing machines! He was a genius about, um… a lot of oth­er… things… and, um, stuff…

Okay, I’m sure you know a bit more than that, but unless you’re a Renais­sance schol­ar, you’re cer­tain to find your­self amazed and sur­prised at how much you didn’t know about the quin­tes­sen­tial Renais­sance man when you encounter a com­pi­la­tion of his note­books—Codex Arun­del—which has been dig­i­tized by the British Library and made avail­able to the pub­lic.

The note­book, writes Jonathan Jones at The Guardian, rep­re­sents “the liv­ing record of a uni­ver­sal mind.” And yet, though a “technophile” him­self, “when it came to pub­li­ca­tion, Leonar­do was a lud­dite…. He made no effort to get his notes pub­lished.”

For hun­dreds of years, the huge, secre­tive col­lec­tion of man­u­scripts remained most­ly unseen by all but the most rar­i­fied of col­lec­tors. After Leonar­do’s death in France, writes the British Library, his stu­dent Francesco Melzi “brought many of his man­u­scripts and draw­ings back to Italy. Melzi’s heirs, who had no idea of the impor­tance of the man­u­scripts, grad­u­al­ly dis­posed of them.” Nonethe­less, over 5,000 pages of notes “still exist in Leonardo’s ‘mir­ror writ­ing’, from right to left.” In the note­books, da Vin­ci drew “visions of the aero­plane, the heli­copter, the para­chute, the sub­ma­rine and the car. It was more than 300 years before many of his ideas were improved upon.”

The dig­i­tized note­books debuted in 2007 as a joint project of the British Library and Microsoft called “Turn­ing the Pages 2.0,” an inter­ac­tive fea­ture that allows view­ers to “turn” the pages of the note­books with ani­ma­tions. Onscreen gloss­es explain the con­tent of the cryp­tic notes sur­round­ing the many tech­ni­cal draw­ings, dia­grams, and schemat­ics (see a selec­tion of the note­books in this ani­mat­ed for­mat here). For an over­whelm­ing amount of Leonar­do, you can look through 570 dig­i­tized pages of Codex Arun­del here. For a slight­ly more digestible, and read­able, amount of Leonar­do, see the British Library’s brief series on his life and work, includ­ing expla­na­tions of his div­ing appa­ra­tus, para­chute, and glid­er.

And for much more on the man—including evi­dence of his sar­to­r­i­al “pref­er­ence for pink tights” and his shop­ping lists—see Jonathan Jones’ Guardian piece, which links to oth­er note­book col­lec­tions and resources. The artist and self-taught poly­math made an impres­sive effort to keep his ideas from pry­ing eyes. Now, thanks to dig­i­tized col­lec­tions like those at the British Library, “any­one can study the mind of Leonar­do.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Leonar­do Da Vinci’s To Do List (Cir­ca 1490) Is Much Cool­er Than Yours

How to Build Leonar­do da Vinci’s Inge­nious Self-Sup­port­ing Bridge: Renais­sance Inno­va­tions You Can Still Enjoy Today

Down­load the Sub­lime Anato­my Draw­ings of Leonar­do da Vin­ci: Avail­able Online, or in a Great iPad App

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (27)
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  • Rico Lamoureux says:

    The beau­ti­ful side of genius.

  • Adela Katiusha Barrio Tarnawiecki says:

    Thank you for all this!

  • David W says:

    Leonar­do not pub­lish­ing his notes does­n’t make him a lud­dite. A lud­dite is a per­son who destroys machines because they threat­en his job. Secre­cy was, in Leonar­do’s day, the equiv­a­lent to a pat­tent. It was not his respon­si­bil­i­ty to share his knowl­edge, as Johnathan Jones implies. It WAS his respon­si­bil­i­ty to insure his secrets did not fall into the wrong hands, as they were a mat­ter of nation­al secu­ri­ty. Renais­sance design­ers were the engi­neers who also built the machines of war. He was the equiv­a­lent of a DARPA sci­en­tist, only hun­dreds of years beyond his con­tem­po­raries.

  • Khalid Dinar says:

    pink tights are the way to go!

  • Hanuman kambli says:

    Would be very hap­py to know more about any oth­er activ­i­ties you do.

  • Matteo Bonera says:

    You can find all the 1,119 pages of his great­est work the codex-altan­ti­cus at http://www.codex-atlanticus.it

  • Susan says:

    A lud­dite? Weird char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of a man who was con­tin­u­al­ly design­ing new tech­nolo­gies. And what exact­ly do you think pub­lish­ing con­sist­ed of in DaVin­ci’s day? How would you sug­gest he should have “pub­lished” his work?

  • Tahsin Deniz Arpacı says:

    Good news. Thank you for shar­ing…

  • Simon L says:

    Agreed David W

  • Mike Massen says:

    Great too see. We should all have ready access to note­books and writ­ing not mere typ­ing as it isn’t as effec­tive since our brains wired for tight kines­thet­ic con­trol of our expres­sive dig­its.
    Ideas cheap a dime a dozen but, keep­ing a note­book offers means to review, aug­ment and advance IOW this most impor­tant sta­bil­is­ing influ­ence being Feed­back.
    One won­ders if Leonar­do fell into pat­terns of psy­che self obser­va­tion from writ­ing often as much as doc­u­ment­ing and keep­ing track of his fer­tile mind ?
    ie. Could it be his writ­ing was the first form of psy­che mod­er­a­tion advice he had mania of genius like bipo­lar or adher­ents with the dis­ci­pline of writ­ing mod­er­at­ing that — like oceans mod­er­ate ther­mal vari­ance of land etc.
    Hey, well I’ve flat­tered myself, I just had a Trump moment !
    ‘Hey I don’t just have note­books I have great note­books but, mine are much bet­ter than any­one elses believe me’ ;-)

    Seri­ous­ly we need more feed­back, more per­son­al and tan­gi­ble exter­nal­i­sa­tion of thought process offer­ing us and life in gen­er­al more vari­ety and man­age­ment for mov­ing soci­ety, envi­ron­ment and our immense unused intel­lec­tu­al capac­i­ty for­ward, cheers

  • Matt Taylor says:

    Very well put and you note sev­er­al aspects of Note­book Work. Keep­ing Note­books over decades, leav­ing space to go back to pages and adding to them, doc­u­ment­ing the time, place, con­text of dif­fer­ent entries, tak­ing care to make the pages a work of art as well as the hold­er of con­tent, using tools and media that engage the hand and mind does bring about an unique med­i­ta­tive state… this is how the me of yes­ter­day can have a dia­log with the me of tomor­row and the me of today. This can pro­vide true feed­back a crit­i­cal means to self-cov­er­ance.

  • Mandy Johnston says:

    Did he also write the voyn­rich man­u­scripts as a boy..????

  • Lute says:

    You speak with an inci­sive tongue sir!

  • Dave Mudge says:

    All of these com­ments are quite elo­quent­ly writ­ten. I will say that a very old and tat­tered copy of the Note­books of Leonar­do da Vin­ci was the only book that I read in high school. I thank him for the insight, and I thank “OPEN CULTURE” for this site…

  • Patricia Kay says:

    To Mike Massen Thank you for the inspi­ra­tion about jour­nalling. It had not dawned on me that using tech­nol­o­gy (typ­ing) in rela­tion to art could restrict the flow of cre­ativ­i­ty. This is an excit­ing rev­e­la­tion to me I can’t wait to get start­ed!! :)
    I also want to say thank you for inject­ing your intel­li­gent and delight­ful humour, sad­ly a rare com­mod­i­ty, at least in my present world.

  • Robyn says:

    They’re upside down LOL

  • Rick Chase says:

    Rick Chase says:
    To think, if only a few of the demon­strat­ed actions of Leonar­do’s obser­va­tion were taught to com­pelling young minds, how much the world would change. The pur­suit of knowl­edge is the only way the human exis­tence will sur­vive.

  • Kathryn Armstrong says:

    I was more than priv­i­leged as a child to be able to flip through (with a gallery per­son care­ful­ly instruct­ing me) Da Vin­cis vision­ary book with the air­plane sketch­es! It was def­i­nite­ly a high­light to my life. The Ams­ter­dam gallery also had piles of Rem­brandts very large paint­ings hang­ing from what seemed to be clothes lines in a path­way. The paint­ings were fac­ing one anoth­er and we had to tuck our arms in to ensure we were not rub­bing up against the paint­ings. This was over 45 years ago and I can still see these mem­o­ries in my head! One of the best mem­o­ries of my life! All peo­ple in sci­ence and tech need to look at these books!

  • Georgia Ard says:

    Thank you for shar­ing, as I have nev­er known these books where avail­able.

  • Khalil ur rehman says:

    Thank you for shar­ing such a won­der­ful piece of work.
    He was real­ly genius of j hi is time

  • james Baxter says:

    I’d like the Eng­lish Audio edi­tion with dia­grams.

  • Tianna Danann says:

    Mandy John­ston.… Voyn­ich man­u­script to be writ­ten by the 16th-cen­tu­ry Eng­lish author Antho­ny Ascham, whose works include A Lit­tle Herbal, pub­lished in 1550.

  • Henry Chang says:

    Leornar­do was a “Lud­dite” because he did­n’t seek to pub­lish his notes? This is one of the most igno­rant state­ments I’ve ever seen on the sub­ject of the great artist. A man whose inter­ests includ­ed draw­ing, paint­ing, sculp­ture, archi­tec­ture, inven­tion, music, math­e­mat­ics, engi­neer­ing, lit­er­a­ture, anato­my, geol­o­gy, astron­o­my, botany, pale­on­tol­ogy, and car­tog­ra­phy was a Lud­dite. OK. I’m flab­ber­gast­ed with the lev­el of flawed analy­sis by the author of this arti­cle. Could any­one be more wrong about any­thing?

  • Charissa Terranova says:

    Exact­ly. Leonar­do = DARPA sci­en­tist with many tal­ents.

  • Miles R Fidelman says:

    So.. any­body know if Leonar­do ever went back to look at his notes? For that mat­ter, how many of the rest of us go back and look at our old work­ing notes?

  • Penelope Goodman says:

    Thanks for let­ting us have abil­i­ty to see all Leonar­do was absolute­ly amaz­ing!!

  • Rita Robl, asc says:

    An absolute­ly amaz­ing per­son with unbe­liev­able gifts!

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