Leonardo da Vinci's manuscripts

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Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci,
red chalk on paper, 27.5 × 19.0 cm,
Francesco Melzi around 1510.
Codex Forster III in the original binding with toggle fastening.

The estate of the Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), painter , sculptor , architect , anatomist , engineer and natural philosopher , comprised an extensive collection of handwritten documents in the form of drawings and notes by the artist.


As a young artist, Leonardo began to record his sketches and drafts, but also ideas and thoughts, in bound sketchbooks and notebooks. It is reported that he always wore such a book on his belt.

The contents of the notebooks are mostly thematically disordered and show the extraordinary range of Leonardo's interests. In addition to mundane and everyday notes, such as grocery shopping lists and debtor lists, there are comments and contributions to art and painting , mechanics , geometry and astronomy , water and water management , rock and mountain formation , air and light , biology and anatomy , technology , weapon technology and Architecture , often even on the same sheet. Few volumes are devoted to a single artistic or scientific subject, such as the code on bird flight .

Some notebooks have been preserved in their original bindings, e.g. As the Codex Forster and the Paris Manuscript B . These bindings are usually provided with a loop and a wooden toggle as a book clasp, similar to a duffle coat . It was only after da Vinci's death that other works were put together in hard bindings from loose sheets of various sizes , such as the Codex Atlanticus and the Trattato della pittura . Other manuscripts are only preserved today as single sheets, e.g. B. the Codex Windsor . The volumes are referred to as codices (Italian: Codici ), usually with the addition of a former owner, such as the Codex Arundel or their current location, e.g. B. Codex Madrid .

Leonardo wrote most of the texts in his characteristic mirror writing . Since Leonardo was left-handed and wrote and drawn with his left hand, it is likely that it was easier for him to write from right to left. It is also possible that he chose mirror writing for reasons of confidentiality and thereby wanted to make it more difficult for unwanted readers to grasp the texts by cursory reading .

Due to the enormous variety of topics in his written work, Leonardo da Vinci is the epitome of the universal man and universal genius . It is believed that da Vinci intended to compose an encyclopedia that would bring together the knowledge of his time. However, none of his written work was published during his lifetime.

Leonardo da Vinci left more than 6,000 leaves for posterity. It is estimated that 25 to 80% of Leonardo's written estate may have been lost.


Most of Leonardo da Vinci's manuscripts and drawings were kept in his villa near Vaprio d'Adda by his pupil and heir Francesco Melzi (around 1491/92 - around 1570) after his death . His son Orazio Melzi inherited the documents in 1570. The manuscripts were sold, sometimes as individual sheets, and the valuable material was scattered.

Codex Atlanticus

Around 1590, the sculptor and art collector Pompeo Leoni (1533–1608) was able to acquire a large part of the records, including over 2,500 individual sheets. Leoni cut up individual sheets of paper, glued together others that did not originally belong together. This is how the Codex Atlanticus and Codex Windsor came about . After Leoni's death in 1608, the documents came into the possession of Count Galeazzo Arconati , who donated them to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan in 1637 .

The path of many manuscripts from the Ambrosian Library to their current whereabouts is unclear. In the library records, the documents in their original extent appear for the last time in 1674, in a list from the Arconati donation. In 1795 twelve manuscripts that remained there reached the library of the Institut de France in Paris as Napoleon's spoils of war , today they are called the Paris manuscripts A to M , and the Codex Atlanticus . Only the Codex Atlanticus returned to the Ambrosiana after the fall of Napoleon in 1815. The Institut de France still houses the largest collection of Leonardo da Vinci's manuscripts.

Preserved main works and their locations

Locations of the codes of Leonardo da Vinci in Europe

The codes are now in various collections in Europe and North America.

The Codex Leicester is currently the only privately owned code. The manuscript was at an auction in 1994 by entrepreneur Bill Gates for 30.8 million US dollars bought. This makes this code the most expensive manuscript ever sold in the world.

title Dating leaves format Library / collection Location Illustration
Codex Arundel 1478-1518 283 16 × 22 cm British Library London Codex arundel.jpg
Codex Ashburnham
(2 volumes)
1489-1492 44 15 × 22 cm
16 × 23 cm
Institut de France Paris Codex ashburnham.jpg
Codex Atlanticus 1478-1518 1119 43.5 × 64.5 cm
posthumously combined
Biblioteca Ambrosiana Milan Leonardo da vinci, gru girevole di brunelleschi, codice ambrosiano CA, c.  965 r.jpg
Codex Forster
(3 volumes)
10 × 14.5 cm
7 × 9.5 cm
6 × 9 cm
Victoria and Albert Museum London Codex Forster Book I Fol 7.jpg
Paris manuscripts
(also: Codices of the Institut de France ; 12 volumes)
1492-1516 964 different formats Institut de France Paris Leonardo da vinci, Flying machine.jpg
Codex Leicester
(also: Codex Hammer )
1504-1506 18th 22 × 28 cm Privately owned Codex de leicester.jpg
Codex Madrid
(2 volumes)
15 × 21 cm Spanish National Library Madrid Ascenceur à manivelle-Léonard.jpg
Codex Trivulcianus 1478-1490 55 14 x 20.5 cm Sforzesco Castle Milan Codex trivulzianus.jpg
Trattato della Pittura
(also: Codex Vaticanus 1270 or Codex Urbinas )
1480-1516 , different formats
posthumously summarized
Biblioteca Vaticana Vatican Trattato della Pittura - 140.jpg
Codex about the flight of birds
(also: Codex Turin )
1505 18th 15 × 21 cm Biblioteca Reale Turin Leonardo da vinci, Codex on the flight of birds.jpg
Codex Windsor 1478-1518 606 , different formats
posthumously summarized
Royal Collection Windsor Castle Studia szkieletu.jpg


Web links

Commons : Manuscripts of Leonardo da Vinci  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. a b Klein, pp. 11-13
  2. Nicholl, p. 23
  3. Kemp, p. 15
  4. Hans Wußing: From Leonardo da Vinci to Galileo Galilei . Edition at Gutenbergplatz, Leipzig 2010, ISBN 978-3-937219-41-7 , p. 32
  5. ^ Josef Rattner, Gerhard Danzer: The birth of modern European people in the Italian Renaissance 1350–1600 . Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2004, ISBN 3-8260-2934-8 , p. 124
  6. ^ A b Maren Huberty: The bestiary by Leonardo da Vinci . In: Bestiaries in the field of tension between the Middle Ages and the modern Gisela Febel u. Georg Maag (Ed.), Gunter Narr Verlag, Tübingen 1997, ISBN 3-8233-5176-1 , p. 75
  7. a b Kemp, p. 16
  8. a b Pedretti, p. 257
  9. Markus Bernauer (Ed.): Wilhelm Heinse, The records . Volume 3, Carl Hanser, Munich 2005, p. 1621, ISBN 3-446-20399-0
  10. Pedretti, p. 23; 109
  11. ^ Carlo Pedretti, Catherine Frost: Leonardo, Art and Science . Giunti Editore, Florence / Milan 2000, p. 106
  12. Nicholl, p. 690 f.