The genius of Leonardo

From astronomy to hydrodynamics, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Codex Leicester includes his observations and theories on an astonishing variety of topics, writes B. N. Goswamy

“To Leonardo a landscape, like a human being, was part of a vast machine, to be understood part by part and, if possible, in the whole. Rocks were not simply decorative silhouettes. They were part of the earth’s bones, with an anatomy of their own, caused by some remote seismic upheaval. Clouds were not random curls of the brush, drawn by some celestial artist, but were the congregation of tiny drops formed from the evaporation of the sea, and soon would pour back their rain into the rivers.” — Lord Kenneth Clark

WHEN one decides to write a piece — especially a short piece like the present one — on Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), artist, inventor, genius, a man of transcendent brilliance, one does not even know where to begin. It is obviously impossible to bring in the whole range of his phenomenal output; just one aspect of the intellect of this truly Renaissance man would also not be easy to cover. I am, therefore, confining myself here simply to draw attention to one of his most celebrated works — the Codex Leicester, which was in the news not too long ago.

Leonardo da Vinci: Self Portrait, ca. 1512. Drawing in red chalk; Royal Palace, Turin, Italy
Leonardo da Vinci: Self Portrait,
ca. 1512. Drawing in red chalk;
Royal Palace, Turin, Italy

This Codex — the word is used to describe a "manuscript book, especially of scripture, early literature, or ancient mythological or historical annals" — is only one of the more than 30 scientific journals that Leonardo wrote in his tireless life, and was in the form of 18 large sheets of paper, each folded in half and written in Italian in his familiar and somewhat mystifying ‘mirror writing’ on both sides, thus forming a document of 72 pages. The folios were once stitched together; at one point they were unbound to turn into loose sheets; and bound back yet again.

The Codex, written between 1506 and 1510, was evidently not originally called by the name it now bears. It started being called the Codex Leicester (pronounced ‘Lester’, more or less) on account of its having been purchased, in 1717, by the Earl of Leicester. At the Leicester estate, it kept passing from one member of the family to the next, but only until 1980. In that year, the English aristocratic family needing to raise money, the Codex was put up for auction at Christie’s, and was bought for something close to $5 million by the famous, but not so scrupulous, American business tycoon, Armand Hammer, who — characteristically — decided to rename it as Codex Hammer. But this name enjoyed only a short life, for in 1994, upon Hammer’s death, the Codex was back at the auction block. This time it was bought, for a little more than $30 million, by the Microsoft chairman, Bill Gates, who — characteristically again, it seems — decided to restore the name that Leonardo’s masterly work had been known under for almost 300 years: the Codex Leicester. It is under this name that the work has been travelling for some time: it has been exhibited in Venice, Milan, Rome, Paris, Dublin, Berlin, Seattle, and of course in New York. Bill Gates believes in sharing this unique object — the only one of Leonardo’s notebooks in private hands now — with as many people as he can, for it is important for everyone in his view to get a sense of the unrelenting energy with which Leonardo pursued knowledge.

"His scientific notebooks", Gates says, "are awe-inspiring not simply as repositories of his remarkable ideas but as records of a great mind at work. In the pages of the Codex Leicester, he frames important questions, tests concepts, confronts challenges, and strives for answers.... His writings demonstrate that creativity drives discovery, and that art and science — often seen as opposites — can inform and influence each other."

Most people know Leonardo simply as a great painter, he to whom we owe some of the most famous paintings in western history: thus, the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, the Virgin of the Rocks, the Vitruvian Man, his own Portrait. But as has been well said, if he had the heart of an artist, he had the mind of a scientist.

Truly, however, art and science were inseparable in Leonardo’s eyes, for both were based on insightful observation, which, in his case, was ‘augmented by an almost superhuman ability to see detail’. One can see the influence of Leonardo, the scientist, on Leonardo, the artist, in example after example of his work. The countless sheets of paper that constituted his notebooks — the Codex Leicester apart, there are other volumes that have survived, including the voluminous Codex Atlanticus, the Codex Trivulzianus, a Codex on the Flight of Birds — contain a lively record of Leonardo’s thoughts. The Codex Leicester alone embraces an astonishing variety of topics, from astronomy to hydrodynamics, and includes Leonardo’s observations and theories related to rivers and seas, the properties of water, rocks and fossils, air, and heavenly light.

However, everything is expressed not only in words but also in pen-and-ink sketches, diagrams and drawings. He seems to have had a special fascination for the flow of water for, the beauty of it apart, he had to learn the essential laws of water to succeed as an hydraulic engineer, a job that he also took on in his life.

In the Codex, he makes plans for water-powered machinery, proposes draining the swamps around Milan, designs a system of canals and locks and makes studies of the rippling motion, eddies and whirlpools of watercourses.

There is magic in these pages, the manuscript looking like ‘an outwardly expanding circle of waves, created by a virtually tireless matrix: an unrelenting drive to transform, translating institutions, ideas, and visions into texts, prophecies, drawings, technical designs and apocalyptic nightmares’.

As someone eloquently wrote, here "these spheres converge and commingle; the sciences and arts reciprocally infuse, fertilise, unsettle one another. Here drawings and words exchange their functions: the drawings explain contexts and connections, the texts overflow with poetic images."

Interestingly, however, surprises do not end on the pages of his notebooks. While Leonardo was delving into the depths of the universe, as one visitor to the show of the Codex described it, "when we leaned forward to within centimetres of the manuscript, we discovered in the middle of this universe a minute hole that the artist-engineer had punched into the paper with the tip of a drafting compass 500 years ago".