The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci Critical Essays

Leonardo da Vinci

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

One need only look at one of Leonardo’s paintings to realize that he was a man of great genius, but the vast range of that genius is not fully appreciated until one has read his notebooks. Very little is revealed there about the man as a person, but very much about his genius. It is not so much the fact that the notebooks are not a diary as it is that the external facts of life, love, friendship, and the like, are unimportant when placed beside the life of the mind. The notebooks are a record of Leonardo’s love affair with his own mind and with everything that came within the sight of his outer and inner eye. The notebooks reveal an eye and sensitivity more acute than even those of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who in his notebooks also looked for the essence of all phenomena. Leonardo was a born artist, but he was also a made artist. The notebooks evidence his careful preparation. Read carefully, they reveal both what Leonardo achieved and how he achieved it.

The portions of the notebooks that are extant were written during the last thirty years of his life and cover several thousand pages. The mystery that surrounds Leonardo’s life and art is present even in the notebooks, both in their form and in their content. The first striking example is the handwriting itself, which is backwards and moves from right to left, looking like some sort of esoteric script. Then there is the fragmentary nature of the observations. Leonardo himself commented in 1508 on the lack of order in his writings. Seldom is a point pursued more than several sentences and there is great alacrity in moving from one topic to the next. This fragmentation has caused most modern editors to classify and rearrange the entries, but the form is valuable in that it reveals the delight and spontaneous exuberance Leonardo must have felt in being able to follow and to record the wanderings of his own mind. Thus while rearrangements like Edward MacCurdy’s go a long way in clarifying the contents of the original manuscript, they fail to show the reader the way Leonardo’s mind worked. In some instances, the great “esemplastic” power of his imagination is lost sight of in the desire of his editors to compartmentalize. This is a fault of the earliest as well as the most recent editors.

For example, his notebooks were bequeathed to his young friend Francesco Melzi but later fell into the hands of the rather unscrupulous Pompeo Leoni. Leoni separated the scientific from the artistic observations and sold the manuscripts piecemeal. This practice probably accounts for the loss of some of the material. Further extraction took place in 1651, when the famous TREATISE ON PAINTING was published by Rafaelle du Fresne. This treatise is based upon the notebooks and represents Leonardo’s observations on the craft and aims of painting. Though it organizes these observations, they lose something by being taken out of their original context. In the nineteenth century the drawings were taken out of the manuscripts and bound together. These drawings were intended to follow the text, and although their quality as drawings is remarkable, their removal from their context has somewhat distorted their meaning.

What is important to remember is that although there is no clear organization in the notebooks, there is also no separation. The eye controls everything. Thus Leonardo’s observations on science and on art are part of the same interest. Though painting is in Leonardo’s terms a higher human activity than science, it cannot be said that science is simply the handmaiden of the arts. It is more accurate to say that for him science was an art and art a science. There is an empirical base and philosophical end for both, and art achieves this end more completely than science.

Leonardo dissected over thirty human bodies, it is said, and his notebooks contain some brilliant anatomical drawings. These...

(The entire section is 1591 words.)