Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebooks Get Digitized: Where to Read the Renaissance Man’s Manuscripts Online

From the hand of Leonar­do da Vin­ci came the Mona Lisa and The Last Sup­per, among oth­er art objects of intense rev­er­ence and even wor­ship. But to under­stand the mind of Leonar­do da Vin­ci, one must immerse one­self in his note­books. Total­ing some 13,000 pages of notes and draw­ings, they record some­thing of every aspect of the Renais­sance man’s intel­lec­tu­al and dai­ly life: stud­ies for art­works, designs for ele­gant build­ings and fan­tas­ti­cal machines, obser­va­tions of the world around him, lists of his gro­ceries and his debtors. Intend­ing their even­tu­al pub­li­ca­tion, Leonar­do left his note­books to his pupil Francesco Melzi, by the time of whose own death half a cen­tu­ry lat­er lit­tle had been done with them.

Absent a prop­er stew­ard, Leonar­do’s note­books scat­tered across the world. Six cen­turies lat­er, their sur­viv­ing pages con­sti­tute a series of codices in the pos­ses­sion of such enti­ties as the Bib­liote­ca Ambrosiana, the British Muse­um, the Insti­tut de France, and Bill Gates.

In recent years, they and their col­lab­o­rat­ing orga­ni­za­tions have made efforts to open Leonar­do’s note­books to the world, dig­i­tiz­ing them, trans­lat­ing them, and orga­niz­ing them for con­ve­nient brows­ing on the web. Here on Open Cul­ture, we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured the Codex Arun­del as made avail­able to the pub­lic by the British Library, Codex Atlanti­cus by the Visu­al Agency, and the three-part Codex Forster by the Vic­to­ria & Albert Muse­um.

Oth­er col­lec­tions of Leonar­do’s note­books made avail­able to view online include the Madrid Codices at the Bib­liote­ca Nacional de España, the Codex Trivulzianus at the Archi­vo Stori­co Civi­co e Bib­liote­ca Trivulziana, and the Codex on the Flight of Birds at the Smith­son­ian Nation­al Air and Space Muse­um. (Pub­lished as a stand­alone book, his Trea­tise on Paint­ing is avail­able to down­load at Project Guten­berg.) Even so, many of the pages Leonar­do wrote haven’t yet made it to the inter­net, and even when they do, gen­er­a­tions of inter­pre­tive work — well beyond revers­ing his “mir­ror writ­ing” — will sure­ly remain. Much as human­i­ty is only now putting some of his inven­tions to the test, the full pub­li­ca­tion of his note­books remains a work in progress. Leonar­do him­self would sure­ly under­stand: after all, one can’t cul­ti­vate a mind like his with­out patience.

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 Hand­writ­ten Resume (1482)

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

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

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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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