Leonardo da Vinci’s Earliest Notebooks Now Digitized and Made Free Online: Explore His Ingenious Drawings, Diagrams, Mirror Writing & More

Do a search on the word “poly­math” and you will see an image or ref­er­ence to Leonar­do da Vin­ci in near­ly every result. Many his­tor­i­cal figures—not all of them world famous, not all Euro­peans, men, or from the Ital­ian Renaissance—fit the descrip­tion. But few such record­ed indi­vid­u­als were as fever­ish­ly active, rest­less­ly inven­tive, and aston­ish­ing­ly pro­lif­ic as Leonar­do, who left rid­dles enough for schol­ars to solve for many life­times.

Leonar­do him­self, though world-renowned for his tal­ents in the fine arts, spent more of his time con­ceiv­ing sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies and engi­neer­ing projects. “When he wrote in the ear­ly 1480s to Ludovi­co Sforza, then ruler of Milan, to offer him his ser­vices,” remarks Cather­ine Yvard, Spe­cial Col­lec­tions cura­tor at the Vic­to­ria and Albert Nation­al Art Library, “he adver­tised him­self as a mil­i­tary engi­neer, only briefly men­tion­ing his artis­tic skills at the end of the list.”

But since so few of his projects were, or could be, real­ized in his life­time, we can only expe­ri­ence them through his most­ly inac­ces­si­ble, and gen­er­al­ly inde­ci­pher­able, note­books, which he began keep­ing after the Duke accept­ed his appli­ca­tion. “None of Leonardo’s pre­de­ces­sors, con­tem­po­raries or suc­ces­sors used paper quite like he did,” notes the Vic­to­ria and Albert Muse­um site, “a sin­gle sheet con­tains an unpre­dictable pat­tern of ideas and inventions—the work­ings of both a design­er and a sci­en­tist.”

Part of the dif­fi­cul­ty of piec­ing his lega­cy togeth­er stems from the fact that his hun­dreds of pages of notes have been dis­trib­uted across sev­er­al insti­tu­tions and pri­vate col­lec­tions, not all of them acces­si­ble to researchers. But ambi­tious dig­i­ti­za­tion projects are eras­ing those bar­ri­ers. We recent­ly fea­tured one, a joint effort of the British Library and Microsoft that brought 570 pages from the Codex Arun­del col­lec­tion to the web. As The Art News­pa­per reports, the Vic­to­ria and Albert has now launched a sim­i­lar endeav­or, dig­i­tiz­ing the Codex Forster note­books, so named because they came from the pri­vate col­lec­tion of John Forster in 1876.

This col­lec­tion includes some of Leonardo’s ear­li­est note­books. Codex Forster I, now online, con­tains the ear­li­est note­book the V&A holds, dat­ing from about 1487, and the lat­est, from 1505. “Writ­ten in Leonardo’s famous ‘mir­ror-writ­ing,’” the V&A notes, “the sub­jects explored with­in range from hydraulic engi­neer­ing to a trea­tise on mea­sur­ing solids.” Forster II and III should come online soon. “We are plan­ning to make these two oth­er vol­umes also ful­ly acces­si­ble online in 2019 to cel­e­brate the 500th anniver­sary of Leonardo’s death,” says Yvard.

The most inno­v­a­tive aspect of this par­tic­u­lar project is the use of IIIF (Inter­na­tion­al Image Inter­op­er­abil­i­ty Frame­work), a tech­nol­o­gy that “has enabled us to present the codex in a new way,” remarks Kati Price, V&A’s head of dig­i­tal media. “We’ve used deep-zoom func­tion­al­i­ty… to present some of the most spec­tac­u­lar and detailed items in our col­lec­tion.” Schol­ars and laypeo­ple alike can take a very close-up look at the many schemat­ics and tech­ni­cal dia­grams in the note­books and see Leonardo’s mind and hand at work.

But while all of us can mar­vel at the sight of his engi­neer­ing genius, when it comes to read­ing his hand­writ­ing, we’ll have to rely on experts. Let’s hope the muse­um will some­day sup­ply trans­la­tions for non­spe­cial­ists. In the mean­time, explore the dig­i­tized man­u­scripts here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

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

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

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