Why Did Leonardo da Vinci Write Backwards? A Look Into the Ultimate Renaissance Man’s “Mirror Writing”

As the stand­out exam­ple of the “Renais­sance Man” ide­al, Leonar­do da Vin­ci racked up no small num­ber of accom­plish­ments in his life. He also had his eccen­tric­i­ties, and tried his hand at a num­ber of exper­i­ments that might look a bit odd even to his admir­ers today. In the case of one prac­tice he even­tu­al­ly mas­tered and with which he stuck, he tried his hand in a more lit­er­al sense than usu­al: Leonar­do, the evi­dence clear­ly shows, had a habit of writ­ing back­wards, start­ing at the right side of the page and mov­ing to the left.

“Only when he was writ­ing some­thing intend­ed for oth­er peo­ple did he write in the nor­mal direc­tion,” says the Muse­um of Sci­ence. Why did he write back­wards? That remains one of the host of so far unan­swer­able ques­tions about Leonar­do’s remark­able life, but “one idea is that it may have kept his hands clean. Peo­ple who were con­tem­po­raries of Leonar­do left records that they saw him write and paint left hand­ed. He also made sketch­es show­ing his own left hand at work. As a lefty, this mir­rored writ­ing style would have pre­vent­ed him from smudg­ing his ink as he wrote.”

Or Leonar­do could have devel­oped his “mir­ror writ­ing” out of fear, a hypoth­e­sis acknowl­edged even by books for young read­ers: “Through­out his life, he was wor­ried about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of oth­ers steal­ing his ideas,” writes Rachel A. Koestler-Grack in Leonar­do Da Vin­ci: Artist, Inven­tor, and Renais­sance Man“The obser­va­tions in his note­books were writ­ten in such a way that they could be read only by hold­ing the books up to a mir­ror.” The blog Walk­er’s Chap­ters makes a rep­re­sen­ta­tive coun­ter­ar­gu­ment: “Do you real­ly think that a man as clever as Leonar­do thought it was a good way to pre­vent peo­ple from read­ing his notes? This man, this genius, if he tru­ly want­ed to make his notes read­able only to him­self, he would’ve invent­ed an entire­ly new lan­guage for this pur­pose. We’re talk­ing about a dude who con­cep­tu­al­ized para­chutes even before heli­copters were a thing.”

Per­haps the most wide­ly seen piece of Leonar­do’s mir­ror writ­ing is his notes on Vit­ru­vian Man (a piece of which appears at the top of the post), his enor­mous­ly famous draw­ing that fits the pro­por­tions of the human body into the geom­e­try of both a cir­cle and a square (and whose ele­gant math­e­mat­ics we fea­tured last week). Many exam­ples of mir­ror writ­ing exist after Leonar­do, from his coun­try­man Mat­teo Zac­col­in­i’s 17th-cen­tu­ry trea­tise on col­or to the 18th- and 19th-cen­tu­ry cal­lig­ra­phy of the Ottoman Empire to the front of ambu­lances today. Each of those has its func­tion, but one won­ders whether as curi­ous a mind as Leonar­do’s would want to write back­wards sim­ply for the joy of mas­ter­ing and using a skill, any skill, how­ev­er much it might baf­fle oth­ers — or indeed, because it might baf­fle them.

If you’re inter­est­ed in all things da Vin­ci, make sure you check out the new best­selling biog­ra­phy, Leonar­do da Vin­ci, by Wal­ter Isaac­son.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Ele­gant Math­e­mat­ics of Vit­ru­vian Man, Leonar­do da Vinci’s Most Famous Draw­ing: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

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

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Bizarre Car­i­ca­tures & Mon­ster Draw­ings

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

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Hand­writ­ten Resume (1482)

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

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (24)
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  • Donald Lestrange says:

    Why, after mak­ing a dona­tion do I still get these annoy­ing black screens ask­ing for dona­tions?

  • Martha Davis says:

    I may have an answer to the ques­tion of Da Vin­ci “back­ward” writ­ing. I hap­pen to be ambidex­trous, and when very young, I would write front­ward for a while with my right hand and when that hand got tired I would write with my left, often back­ward. Of course, teach­ers and oth­ers smacked my hands often enough for me to real­ize that it would be far bet­ter and less painful just to write with the right hand and always in the left-to-right direc­tion.
    I can still do this, although the left hand out neglect and lack of use is not used to writ­ing and has not con­tin­ued to devel­op the fine mus­cle skills that the right hand has so does not do well with paper and pen­cil any longer — but giv­en a chalk board and chalk, I can still do both hands alone or simul­ta­ne­ous­ly — both hands left to right or right to left, or two hands going in oppo­site direc­tion.

  • ... says:

    I’m sooooo cold

  • Mish says:

    Being a back­ward writer (and left­ie!) myself, I do it just because it delights me. 😁

  • Eric London says:

    Most Like­ly wrote back­ward to keep it pri­vate.

  • Neight Artist says:

    Non of the above are true!

  • Andrea Brooks says:

    I have always been ambidex­trous, a mir­ror writer and can write upside down. It is not learned. It is auto­mat­ic. I have always been able to do this start­ing as a young child. I can write back­wards so fast it bog­gles peo­ple. I also add back­wards in my head and come up with the answers before oth­er peo­ple do. The way the Chi­nese add. You are born that way. It’s just always been there. It’s not learned. My hus­band who is ex mil­i­tary said peo­ple in the mil­i­tary were trained to write back­wards on plex­i­glass for com­mand and con­trol sit­u­a­tions. They don’t need that any­more but my hus­band said that they would not have had to train me.

  • Neight_Artist says:

    I’m sure that all might seem nor­mal 4 u … and am glad that u are able to per­form these tasks with such ease.

    I myself per­form well doing things dif­fer­ent­ly so can iden­ti­fy … as a species we have learned how to improve on our tac­tics.


    The answer has­n’t got any­thing to do with being able to per­form these tasks…

  • Neight_Artist says:

    Am i the only one who knows ???


  • abby says:

    I think he was left-hand­ed because there is a lot of info that he is left-hand­ed.

  • Sarah E. says:

    I think he wrote this Way, because he was a Left­hander. I also start­ed writ­ing “back­wards”, before i came to School. For me it was cor­rect, did­n’t saw my ” Mis­take”.

  • Shannon Kapple says:

    I was Blessed with this tal­ent around 2017, not sure where this abil­i­ty to write back­wards with my right hand cr from, but it is a style of scrip­ture in my own font.. It’s usu­al­ly the same style when I write for­ward vers­es back­wards.. It’s not writ­ten for oth­ers to under­stand my thoughts and feel­ings because it’s per­son­al and unique to me, but it becomes … a spe­cial abstract form of artistry.

  • Neight_Artist says:

    Your abil­i­ty to write in this way is amaz­ing.

  • Neight_Artist says:

    Well done..

    are you left hand­ed or right ?

  • Neight_Artist says:

    Well done!

    are you left hand­ed or right ?

  • Bradley Kent says:

    My the­o­ry: He was writ­ing via the voice of his inner-God.

    The spir­it that lives with­in us, with­in our subconscious,a place that, for many, is labeled the shad­ow, impress­es its per­cep­tions of its obser­va­tions of the con­scious self­’s expe­ri­enced real­i­ty upon the con­scious self.

    In oth­er words: The pro­jec­tions of his sub­con­scious self were writ­ten as they tru­ly were, instead of as the invert­ed reflec­tions most of us see when our expres­sions land upon the can­vas of life.

    There’s a rea­son why it is said… “As above, so below”: What you see of the exter­nal world is a reflec­tion of your inner self. But there’s a catch to this: reflec­tions con­tain waves; they dis­tort how we per­ceive real­i­ty when we look at it; which means…

    Life is more than we THINK it is.

    Life is what we FEEL it to be.

    Feel­ings are spir­it; thoughts are forms.

    My the­o­ry: Da Vin­ci sourced his writ­ing from the clear light of his own Holy Spir­it, not the dark dis­tor­tions of his human mind. In oth­er words: he bypassed his mind’s fil­ter and spoke from his heart; and that can only be accom­plished if what you project from with­in isn’t invert­ed and dis­tort­ed by time spent in self-reflec­tion.

    In oth­er words (x88 ;-) …

    AM I?
    I AM!

  • Michael Braun says:

    The Answer is very easy.
    Leonar­do da Vin­ci was a Left­hander and Left­hander always want to write from the right to the left in mir­rored let­ters, because it is their nat­ur­al and orig­i­nal grain of the right Hemi­sphere. What oth­er peo­ple and sci­en­tists already know, oth­er peo­ple still have to learn.



  • P Park says:

    I nev­er wrote back­wards until I learned cur­sive, which I taught myself before 2nd grade. I still like writ­ing back­wards, but only in cur­sive 50+ years lat­er. P.S. I’m right hand­ed. I can do some things with my left, but not writ­ing, eat­ing, etc. I can use a paint­brush when paint­ing a wall because it’s eas­i­er to paint in a straight line. But my ques­tion is … Why does this come so nat­u­ral­ly to me?

  • Dylan says:

    Don’t feel anx­ious about your sit­u­a­tion. Even­tu­al­ly, most peo­ple come to find such behav­ior to feel sec­ond nature. It’s com­plete­ly nor­mal.

  • Neight_Artist says:

    Great!!! how­ev­er its much more com­plex than that.

  • Neight_Artist says:

    you are right hand­ed ..its com­pli­cat­ed.

  • Eddie Hughes says:

    Ror­rim gni­tirw rof em sa a dli­hc. Demees reisae naht gni­trw drawrof. I saw these ot eht lai­ceps ssalc. Tub evah on aedi yhw I sseug lli reven yllaer wonk rof erus. Sehguh drawde.

  • Eddie Hughes says:

    Ror­rim gni­tirw rof em sa a dli­hc. Demees reisae naht gni­trw drawrof. I saw these ot eht lai­ceps ssalc. Tub evah on aedi yhw I sseug lli reven yllaer wonk rof erus. Sehguh drawde. Ton ylcaxe tcer­roc. Mir­ror writ­ing was not encour­aged by my school. But like da vinchi I find almost every­one stu­pid and felt like an old man age 6. Now my lat­est the­o­ry is that glob­al warm­ing is a con­spir­a­cy. The truth is that we are orbit­ing clos­er to the sun every year. This is the begin­ning of the end. Time will tell.

  • Edward Hughes says:

    One oth­er the­o­ry I have is that black holes become small­er the greater the mass. Ie com­pressed by grav­i­ty. Also black holes can trav­el many times faster than the speed of light. The rea­son the uni­verse is expand­ing faster and faster. It is being sucked by two or more black holes orbit­ing out­side of the vis­i­ble uni­verse by black holes orbit­ing at tril­lions of miles per sec­ond. And have the mass of many times the vis­i­ble u uni­verse. Only a idea.

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