Many people know Leonardo da Vinci best for his famous paintings—the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, Salvator Mundi. But this Italian polymath of the Renaissance had a mind-boggling array of other interests—engineering, mathematics, science, invention, geology, botany, and cartography, just to name a few.
The true extent of da Vinci’s Renaissance mind is captured in the surviving notebooks that he used to sketch out his inventions, record his thoughts on various scientific principles, and even write down his shopping lists.
A few years ago, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London made two of these notebooks available online for the public to view. Known as the Codex Forster I—named after the man who donated the book to the museum in 1876—this volume contains the earliest and the most recent da Vinci notebooks in the museum’s collection.
The notebooks feature some of da Vinci’s inventions, including hydraulic devices for adjusting water levels and digging canals, as well as his ideas for how to measure solids. The text is written in da Vinci’s signature “mirror writing,” from right to left—which means it can only be read by holding it up to a mirror.
Da Vinci’s notebooks are a treasure trove of ideas worth sharing with the world. But as The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones points out, da Vinci never published his work, even though the European printing press was invented in the 15th century and da Vinci owned many printed books himself.
So what you get when you look at the notebooks is not a heavily edited book meant for public consumption, but a glimpse at working manuscripts created by a Universal mind. Which is why alongside da Vinci’s engineering and mathematics notes, you’ll also find his shopping lists—he had a preference for pink tights—and personal reminders.
After da Vinci’s death in 1519, the notebooks were passed onto his pupil Francesco Melzi. Many of these made their way into the collections of museums and private collections. Some notebooks were lost. But the ones that have been saved through the years offer a rare glimpse at an even rarer mind.
By digitizing da Vinci’s notebooks, the Victoria and Albert Museum has made them available to a wider audience, allowing people to flip through and zoom in on the pages, almost as if they were holding the real thing. But this digital perusal has the added advantage of protecting the original notebooks from manual handling, so that they may continue to inspire generations for another 500 years.
The museum plans on making two other da Vinci notebook volumes from its collection available online sometime in 2019.
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