A Complete Digitization of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus, the Largest Existing Collection of His Drawings & Writings

No his­tor­i­cal fig­ure bet­ter fits the def­i­n­i­tion of “Renais­sance man” than Leonar­do da Vin­ci, but that term has become so overused as to become mis­lead­ing. We use it to express mild sur­prise that one per­son could use both their left and right hemi­spheres equal­ly well. But in Leonardo’s day, peo­ple did not think of them­selves hav­ing two brains, and the worlds of art and sci­ence were not so far apart as they are now.

That Leonar­do was able to com­bine fine arts and fine engi­neer­ing may not have been over­ly sur­pris­ing to his con­tem­po­raries, though he was an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly bril­liant exam­ple of the phe­nom­e­non. The more we learn about him, the more we see how close­ly relat­ed the two pur­suits were in his mind.

He approached every­thing he did as a tech­ni­cian. The uncan­ny effects he achieved in paint­ing were the result, as in so much Renais­sance art, of math­e­mat­i­cal pre­ci­sion, care­ful study, and first­hand obser­va­tion.

His artis­tic projects were also exper­i­ments. Some of them failed, as most exper­i­ments do, and some he aban­doned, as he did so many sci­en­tif­ic projects. No mat­ter what, he nev­er under­took any­thing, whether mechan­i­cal, anatom­i­cal, or artis­tic, with­out care­ful plan­ning and design, as his copi­ous note­books tes­ti­fy. As more and more of those note­books have become avail­able online, both Renais­sance schol­ars and laypeo­ple alike have learned con­sid­er­ably more about how Leonardo’s mind worked.

First, there was the Codex Arun­del, dig­i­tized by the British Library and made freely avail­able. It is, writes Jonathan Jones at The Guardian, “the liv­ing record of a uni­ver­sal mind”—but also, specif­i­cal­ly, the mind of a “technophile.” Then, the Vic­to­ria and Albert Nation­al Art Library announced the dig­i­ti­za­tion of Codex Forster, which con­tains some of Leonardo’s ear­li­est note­books. Now The Visu­al Agency has released a com­plete dig­i­ti­za­tion of Leonardo’s Codex Atlanti­cus, a huge col­lec­tion of the artist, engi­neer, and inventor’s fine­ly-illus­trat­ed notes.

(Note: If you speak Eng­lish, make sure you click the “EN” but­ton at the bot­tom right hand cor­ner of the site. Also see “How to Read” at the top of the site.)

“No oth­er col­lec­tion counts more orig­i­nal papers writ­ten by Leonar­do,” notes Google. The Codex Atlanti­cus “con­sists of 1119 papers, most of them drawn or writ­ten on both sides.” Its name has “noth­ing to do with the Atlantic Ocean, or with some eso­teric, mys­te­ri­ous con­tent hid­den in its pages.” The 12-vol­ume col­lec­tion acquired its title because the draw­ings and writ­ings were bound with the same sized paper that was used for mak­ing atlases. Gath­ered in the 16th cen­tu­ry by sculp­tor Pom­peo Leoni, the papers descend­ed from Leonardo’s close stu­dent Gio­van Francesco Melzi, who was entrust­ed with them after his teacher’s death.

The his­to­ry of the Codex itself makes for a fas­ci­nat­ing nar­ra­tive, much of which you can learn at Google’s Ten Key Facts slideshow. The note­books span Leonardo’s career, from 1478, when he was “still work­ing in his native Tus­cany, to 1519, when he died in France.” The col­lec­tion was tak­en from Milan by Napoleon and brought to France, where it remained in the Lou­vre until 1815, when the Con­gress of Vien­na ruled that all art­works stolen by the for­mer Emper­or be returned. (The emis­sary tasked with return­ing the Codex could not deci­pher Leonardo’s mir­ror writ­ing and took it for Chi­nese.)

The Codex con­tains not only engi­neer­ing dia­grams, anato­my stud­ies, and artis­tic sketch­es, but also fables writ­ten by Leonar­do, inspired by Flo­ren­tine lit­er­a­ture. And it fea­tures Leonardo’s famed “CV,” a let­ter he wrote to the Duke of Milan describ­ing in nine points his qual­i­fi­ca­tions for the post of mil­i­tary engi­neer. In point four, he writes, “I still have very con­ve­nient bomb­ing meth­ods that are easy to trans­port; they launch stones and sim­i­lar such in a tem­pest full of smoke to fright­en the ene­my, caus­ing great dam­age and con­fu­sion.”

As if in illus­tra­tion, else­where in the Codex, the draw­ing above appears, “one of the most cel­e­brat­ed” of the col­lec­tion.” It was “shown to trav­el­ing for­eign­ers vis­it­ing the Ambrosiana [the Bib­liote­ca Ambrosiana in Milan, where the Codex resides] since the 18th cen­tu­ry, usu­al­ly arous­ing much amaze­ment.” It is still amaz­ing, espe­cial­ly if we con­sid­er the pos­si­bil­i­ty that its artistry might have been some­thing of a byprod­uct for its cre­ator, whose pri­ma­ry moti­va­tion seems to have been solv­ing tech­ni­cal problems—in the most ele­gant ways imag­in­able.

See the com­plete dig­i­ti­za­tion of Leonardo’s Codex Atlanti­cus here. And again, click “EN” for Eng­lish at the bot­tom of the site, and then “How to Read” at the top of the site.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

How Leonar­do da Vin­ci Drew an Accu­rate Satel­lite Map of an Ital­ian City (1502)

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Hand­writ­ten Resume (1482)

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

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.