“For its own sake and for his own personal joy”: Leonardo’s unpublished notebooks


Leonardo da Vinci is known for many things, but being a case study of one style of information behaviour is not usually among them. However, among the many other aspects of his life covered in Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography, this emerges clearly, particularly from a consideration of his voluminous production of notes and lists, many of which have survived to the present day.

Isaacson shows us that Leonardo was clearly an avid reader: “His appetite for soaking up information from books was voracious and wide-ranging” (p.173) and “His notebooks are filled with lists of books he acquired and passages he copied” (p.172). Leonardo also throughout his life kept lists of books he hoped to find.

As a reader, Leonardo was born at a fortunate time, Isaacson reminds us (p.172-3). By the time Leonardo had become an apprentice in Florence, Gutenberg’s printing technology had become established in Italy, with printing shops in Milan, Florence, Naples, Bologna, Ferrara, Padua, and Genoa. Venice, in particular, became the centre of the European publishing industry, and, when Leonardo visited the city in 1500, two million volumes had already been produced by nearly one hundred printing houses.

Among the books which he records owning and reading are texts on mathematics, religion, art and architecture, agriculture, surgery and anatomy, medicine, palmistry, music, science, Latin grammar, minerals and precious stones, and philosophy, and volumes of literature and poetry, and of essays of the classical authors.

But Leonardo did not rely on written sources to satisfy his seemingly insatiable need for information. He made extensive use of personal contacts, as attested by many notes on his to-do lists: ask Benedetto Portinari how they walk on ice in Flanders; find a master of hydraulics and get him to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner; and many more (p.173. Above all, of course, he relied on his own observation and experiments, artistic as well as scientific, though it is unlikely he would have recognised the distinction.

Drawings and notes on the moon’s reflections of light

It seems that all of his ideas, musings, observations, images, and the rest were recorded in his notes and lists. These took a variety of forms. Some were loose sheets, the same size as today’s tabloid newspapers, which were later bound in book form, by Leonardo himself or by others after his death. Others were smaller portable notebooks, bound in leather or vellum. In them, he recorded artistic sketches, diagrams for machines, weapons, ships and submarines, aircraft, buildings, costumes, and theatrical mechanisms, anatomical sketches, quotations, records of expenses, reminders and to-do lists, and much more. In later years, there were outlines and passages for treatises on many subjects, typically scientific – flight, anatomy, horses, mechanics, hydraulics, geology – as well as on art and architecture. None of these works were ever completed, or even came near completion. He constantly revisited and reworked his ideas, so that his notebooks became living documents, with a constant juxtaposition of ideas and topics. Seemingly haphazard and random, the juxtapositions are bewildering to us, but perhaps not to him. They may simply reflect his fascination with analogies of all kinds: between the natural and artificial, the body of the earth and the body of a human, the circulation of the blood and circulation of water in a river system, water eddies and hair curls, human bodies and buildings, and many more.

Taking analogy to its limit, Leonardo was fascinated by the ancient idea of the microcosm and macrocosm, which remained popular through mediaeval times (as I have written about in an earlier blog post). Isaacson shows how he came to abandon his earlier simplistic ideas about direct analogies between human physiology and geological and atmospheric processes, while retaining “the aesthetic and spiritual concepts underlying it: the harmonies of the cosmos are reflected in the beauty of living creatures” (p.438). This kind of creative vision may be inspiring, but does not lend itself to tidy publishable units.

Town plans, notes on river systems, notes on expenses

Over 7000 pages of his notebooks survive, which Isaacson believes to be about a quarter of what he wrote (p. 106). As an example see that in the British Library’s digital collection, from which the images of notebook pages in this post are taken.

It is difficult to put the notes in order, as they have become disarrayed over time, and are not numbered or dated. It is clear that he often went back, sometimes years later, to add additional thoughts, or just to use up blank (and expensive) paper.

But he never published, or made the contents of his notebooks publicly available. “He occasionally declared an interest to organize and refine his notebook jottings into published works, but his failure to do so became a companion to his failure to complete artworks. As he did with many of his paintings, he would hang on to the treatises that he was drafting, occasionally make a few new strokes or refinements, but never see them through to being released to the public as complete” (p.108).

Fritjof Capra held that if Leonardo had published his work, or even if his notebooks had been studied shortly after his death, he would have been regarded as the founder of modern science, rather than Galileo. In the context of Leonardo’s studies of anatomy, carried through more thoroughly than those of any of the other subjects which caught his attention, Isaacson considers that if they had been published, it would have been Leonardo rather than Versalius who would be regarded as the originator of the discipline. But “he wrote that he intended his findings to be published, but when it came to editing and organizing his notes he was once again dilatory rather than diligent. He was more interested in pursuing knowledge than in publishing it. And even though he was collegial in his life and work, he made little effort to share his findings. This is true for all his studies, not just his work on anatomy. The trove of treatises that he left unpublished testifies to the unusual nature of what motivated him. He wanted to accumulate knowledge for its own sake and for his own personal joy, rather than out of a desire to make a public name for himself as a scholar or to be part of the progress of history”(p.423).

Allegories, prophecies and proverbs

The art historian Charles Hope, perhaps somewhat uncharitably, believes that Leonardo “had no real understanding of the way in which the growth of knowledge was a cumulative and collaborative process.” Isaacson makes the more positive judgement that the fact that his insights had to be rediscovered by others over many years may diminish his impact on the history of science, but not on his genius. Leonardo may perhaps provide lessons to us about information and knowledge, private and public, contemplation and dissemination. The lessons are ambiguous, and I think Leonardo would like that.

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