Sneezing, Yawning, Falling

Charles Nicholl on the writings of Leonardo da Vinci

The list of Leonardo da Vinci’s accomplishments is long and famously various – painter, inventor, anatomist, mathematician, musician and so on – but it seldom includes the word ‘writer’. This is curious considering his enormously prolific output. His extant manuscripts and notebooks run to something like seven thousand pages (though some of them are very small) and this is only a part, perhaps about two thirds, of the total. Leonardo is the writer of this mighty hoard of pages, but in most of them he is not a writer in a literary sense. Rather, he is a writer-down of things: a recorder of thoughts and observations, an inscriber of lists and memoranda. Though he makes some brief excursions into consciously literary forms, the overall tone of his writing is terse, colloquial, practical, laconic. In painting he is a master of nuance, but as a penman he tends to the workmanlike. He is, to borrow a phrase of Ben Jonson’s, a ‘carpenter of words’.

At its best, Leonardo’s writing has a marvellous uncluttered clarity. His left-handed ‘mirror-script’ makes the manuscripts taxing to read, but beyond that orthographic veil one arrives at what Giorgio Nicodemi called his ‘serene and accurate habits of thought’. There are many beautiful sentences in the notebooks. ‘Infra ’l sole e noi è tenebre, e pero l’aria pare azzurra’ (‘Between the sun and us is darkness, and yet the air seems blue’) is a beautiful sentence, but it is not literary style that makes it so. The words are pared back to the quick, disclosing a statement of lucid simplicity into which are folded complex scientific and philosophical questions. Conversely, when he tries to be florid and clever – in certain descriptive passages of floods, tempests, battles; in certain brochure-like letters to potential patrons – the results are pretty turgid. If one is thinking of actual literary compositions by Leonardo (as opposed to the notes, jottings and technical treatises which form the bulk of his manuscripts), he is at his best when writing to entertain: his Aesopian fables, which have that same splendid spareness of diction; his spoof newsletters and riddling mock prophecies. These are dilettante works, composed for the amusement of the Sforza court in Milan, but they are full of interesting, sometimes eerie, resonances.

This most voluminous writer had a very ambivalent attitude to language and its uses. In a well-known comment, Leonardo described himself as an ‘omo sanza lettere’, an ‘unlettered man’. He meant that he had not been taught Latin; that he was not a university man schooled in the gentlemanly ‘liberal arts’ (so called because they were not bound to the necessity of learning a trade). He had followed instead the course of apprenticeship, a different kind of education: one which took place in a commercial workshop, taught artisan skills rather than intellectual ones, and was conducted in Italian rather than Latin. His description of himself as ‘unlettered’ is in part a sardonic celebration of this more practical form of learning. It occurs in a fragmentary essay whose chief theme is a vigorous disparagement of the ‘lettered’ – academics, experts, ipse dixit commentators and abbreviators. They are ‘trumpeters and reciters of the words of others’; they are ‘gonfiati’ – puffed or pumped up – with second-hand information. He, the unlettered man, cannot quote the scholarly authorities as they do, ‘but I will quote something far greater and more worthy: experience, the mistress of their masters.’ There is a touch of social defiance in this, of chippiness even: his lack of formal education, his underprivileged beginnings as an illegitimate son in the rural backwater of Vinci, are being turned into an index of his strength. His mind is free of the lumber of precepts; intellectually he is a self-made man.

Though precociously brilliant in the visual arts (according to Vasari’s Life, and arguable from other evidence), Leonardo was a late starter as a writer. Some isolated folios survive from the 1470s, when he was in his twenties, but the earliest extant notebooks – the first evidence of a systematic programme of writing – date from the later 1480s, when he was in Milan. The development is apparent in the handwriting. The early fragments are looped and curlicued and somewhat effortful (a ‘notarial’ hand, some think, suggestive of training under his notary father, Ser Piero da Vinci); in the Milanese notebooks the orthography is more marshalled and compact, though it is not yet the dense, minimal script of the last years. One of these early notebooks, now called the Trivulzian Codex, has an extensive list of Latin vocabulary, and also the earliest of his book-lists, a skeletal collection including Pliny’s Natural History, a book of Latin grammar, a handbook of arithmetic, and the comic epic Morgante by Luigi Pulci, whom he had probably known in Florence: a short row of books on the autodidact’s shelf. That polemic about the virtues of unletteredness was written in about 1490, part of a series he calls ‘Proemi’ or prefaces, though what they were intended to preface is not clear. It belongs to a period when he is challenging his own shortcomings as a writer and a reader.

There is always a sense with Leonardo that words are to be mistrusted: first-hand ‘experience’ (sperientia, which can also be rendered as ‘experiment’) is all. Language interposes, equivocates, obscures what it seeks to clarify. Beside one of his anatomical drawings of a heart is a block of text that looks like an explanatory caption but actually reads:

O writer, what words of yours could describe this whole organism as perfectly as this drawing does? Because you have no true knowledge of it you write confusedly, and convey little understanding of the true form of things . . . How could you describe this heart in words without filling a whole book? And the more minutely you try to write of it the more you confuse the mind of the listener.

And elsewhere, in similar vein, discussing the design of machinery:

When you want to achieve a certain purpose in a mechanism, do not involve yourself in the confusion of many different parts, but search for the most concise method: do not behave like those who, not knowing how to express something in pertinent words, approach it by a roundabout route of confused long-windedness.

Language is associated with lack of clarity: words tangle things up, they are an overelaborate mechanism. The spoofs and riddles and rebuses he cooked up for the Milanese courtiers express a similar idea: that writing is mere trickery, a party turn.

Vasari makes much of Leonardo’s lively and witty conversation (though he was too young to have heard it himself), but I have also an opposite impression: a man prone to long discomfiting silences; a solitary who loved the company of animals. ‘Man has great power of speech, but what he says is mostly vain and false; animals have little, but what they say is useful and true.’

Leonardo’s prickly relationship with language is a boon for the biographer. Lacking in verbal artifice, well carpentered but seldom much polished, his manuscript writings are a resource in the way that a literary corpus is not. This huge, chaotic, cumulative text is shot through with veins of raw biographical data. Leonardo’s paintings, meticulous and hermetic, offer little in the way of personal revelation, but in the labyrinthine text of his manuscripts and notebooks we hear him: we hear his speech patterns in the sentences; we catch the timbre of his voice in the rough-hewn vernacular spellings.

Even within the private ambit of the notebooks, Leonardo is not much given to personal revelation, but the essentials are there. In a folio on the aerodynamics of bird-flight, squeezed unceremoniously into a corner, we find the famous note about his ‘first memory’ (or, as Freud preferred, fantasy): ‘It seemed to me, when I was in my cradle, that a kite came to me, and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me several times with its tail inside my lips.’ There are other enigmatic fragments (‘If freedom is dear to you, do not reveal that my face is the prison of love’), and aphoristic reminders (‘Do not be a liar about the past’), and occasional little confessions, like this one about lazing in bed: ‘In the morning, when the mind is composed and rested, and the body is fit to begin new labours, so many vain pleasures are taken by the mind, imagining to itself impossible things, and by the body taking those pleasures which often cause a failing of life.’ And there are passages which seem to tap into his own dream-life, as in the prophecy entitled ‘Of dreaming’: ‘You will speak with animals of every species and they will speak with you in human language. You will see yourself fall from great heights without harming yourself. Torrents will sweep you along and mingle in their rapid course.’ Or this haunting final sentence from a story about an African giant: ‘I do not know what to say or what to do, for everywhere I seem to find myself swimming head downwards through that huge throat, and remaining buried in that great belly, in the confusion of death.’

Leonardo once said that a painting should show ‘mental events’ (‘accidenti mentali’) through the physical gestures of the figures in it, and I think of this phrase when I read his manuscripts, which are precisely filled with ‘mental events’, large and small, rigorously annotated, together with a rich mix of ephemera – jokes, doodles, snatches of poetry (Ovid, Horace, Dante), drafts of letters, household accounts, paint recipes, shopping-lists, bank statements and so on – which in some ways tell us more about him than those great and often inscrutable works of art and science for which he is famous.

Leonardo’s manuscripts survive in three forms: in bound collections, compiled after his death; in notebooks which are more or less intact from the time when he owned them; and in single sheets. The most famous of the great miscellaneous collections is the Codex Atlanticus, in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. In its original form, put together in the late 16th century by the sculptor and bibliophile Pompeo Leoni, the Codex Atlanticus was a massive leather-bound volume more than two feet tall. It contained 401 folios, some of them whole sheets of Leonardo manuscript, but most of them a montage of smaller items, up to five or six on a page, sometimes glued down and sometimes mounted in windows so that both sides of the paper could be seen. The name of the codex has nothing to do with the ocean, but refers to its large format – it is ‘atlas-sized’. The name was coined by a librarian at the Ambrosiana, Baldassare Oltrocchi, who listed it in 1780 as a ‘codice in forma atlantica’. In the 1960s this sumptuous scrapbook was dismantled and reordered so that all its constituent pieces (well over a thousand of them) are now mounted separately.

There are two other major miscellanies, both in England. One is the collection of drawings and manuscripts in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. This is also an inheritance from Pompeo Leoni: indeed, some of the smaller fragments at Windsor were demonstrably snipped by Leoni out of larger sheets now in the Codex Atlanticus. It was at some point acquired by that avid collector Charles I, though no documentation of this survives. It surfaced in Kensington Palace in the mid 18th century: according to a contemporary account, ‘this great curiosity’ had been deposited in a ‘large and strong chest’ during the Civil War, and there lay ‘forgotten about for 120 years till Mr Dalton fortunately discovered it at the bottom of the same chest in the beginning of the reign of his present Majesty’. (‘His present Majesty’ was George III.) Among the drawings and manuscripts in this superb collection are the famous folios of anatomical drawings. The other major collection is the Codex Arundel in the British Library, a hotchpotch of 283 folios written over a span of nearly forty years. It was purchased in Spain by the Earl of Arundel in the 1630s.

To these collections of actual Leonardo manuscripts one should add another kind of miscellany: the Codex Urbinas in the Vatican, a compilation of Leonardo’s writings on painting, put together after his death by his secretary and literary executor, Francesco Melzi. An abbreviated version was published in Paris in 1651; this digest is generally known as the Trattato della pittura (‘Treatise on Painting’). At the end of the Codex Urbinas, Melzi lists 18 Leonardo notebooks, large and small (libri and libricini), which he had used as source material: ten of these are lost. Some of them may yet surface: two entire notebooks were discovered by chance, in Madrid, as recently as 1967, and there have been tantalising but unconfirmed sightings of the lost treatise on light and shade known to Melzi as ‘Libro W’.

The collections are magnificent, but the true spirit of Leonardo is to be found in his notebooks. About twenty-five individual notebooks survive; the exact number depends on how you reckon them, as some of the smaller notebooks have been bound into composite volumes: the three Forster codices in the V&A (formerly owned by Dickens’s friend and biographer John Forster), for instance, actually contain five notebooks. The largest concentration of notebooks is in the Institut de France in Paris; they arrived in France en masse in the 1790s, Napoleonic booty expropriated from the Biblioteca Ambrosiana. Others are in Milan, Turin, London, Madrid and Seattle, which is the home of the Codex Leicester, the furthest-flung of all Leonardo’s notebooks, bought ten years ago by Bill Gates for a reported $30 million.

There have been some pages lost here and there – a light-fingered bibliophile, Count Guglielmo Libri, stole several in the mid 19th century – but these notebooks are essentially as Leonardo left them. Some still have their original bindings: he favoured a wrap-around cover of vellum or leather, fastened with a small wooden toggle passed through a loop of cord (like a duffel coat). In size the notebooks range from standard octavo format, much like our exercise-books, down to little pocket-books not much bigger than a pack of playing cards. The latter, Melzi’s libricini, served as both notebooks and sketchbooks, and some show clear signs of having been on the road with Leonardo. An eyewitness account of him in Milan mentions ‘a little book he had always hanging at his belt’.

The keynote of Leonardo’s manuscripts is their diversity, their multiple miscellaneity: there is so much going on. The great lesson of them is that everything is to be questioned, investigated, peered into, worried away at, brought back to first principles. He sets himself tasks both large and small. Here is a list of things to do from a Milanese notebook of c.1508: ‘Describe how the clouds are formed and how they dissolve, and what causes vapour to rise from the waters of the earth into the air, and the causes of mists and of the air becoming thickened, and why it appears more or less blue at different times.’ And here is another from one of the anatomical folios: ‘Describe what sneezing is, what yawning is, the falling sickness, spasm, paralysis, shivering with cold, sweating, fatigue, hunger, sleep, thirst, lust.’ And another: ‘Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.’

Leonardo, Kenneth Clark said, was ‘the most relentlessly curious man in history’. The notebooks log that great quest of interestedness. His habit of inquisitiveness is even expressed in a little scribal tic, found on scores of manuscript pages. When he wanted to try out a new pen-nib Leonardo habitually doodled ‘dimmi’. Tell me. It is the sound of Leonardo seeking another bit of data. Tell me what, tell me how, tell me why – there were doubtless many in Florence and Milan and elsewhere who had heard the challenging tones of the Leonardian dimmi.

A marvellous thing about Leonardo’s manuscripts is their populousness. They are filled with people, or at any rate with names – friends, contacts, creditors, patrons, apprentices, lovers – and sometimes with fragments of other handwritings which testify to a moment of shared physical presence.

On a folio in the Codex Atlanticus is a list of artworks, compiled by Leonardo in about 1482 as he prepared to leave Florence for Milan. It is often transcribed, for its biographical and art-historical value, but what is not usually mentioned is that the first two lines were written by someone else, after the rest of the list and upside down to it. On another Atlanticus folio is a whole sonnet written in the same hand; it is almost entirely obscured with a large ink-blot, but the opening lines are partly legible:

Lionardo mio non avete d[ . . . ]
Lionardo perche tanto penato

(My Leonardo you don’t have any . . .
Leonardo, why so troubled?)

The writer of these words was a popular poet of the day, Antonio Cammelli. He was a native of the Tuscan town of Pistoia, where Leonardo’s aunt lived, and where Leonardo himself was probably holed up in 1477, in the aftermath of a run-in with the Florentine vice squad the previous year. Cammelli is a great character and a good writer; he is one of those slangy, satirical poets known collectively as the ‘Burchielleschi’, after an early exponent of the genre, a Florentine barber nicknamed Il Burchiello. The name derives from the phrase alla burchia, meaning ‘in haste’ or ‘higgledy-piggledy’: they are ‘poets in a hurry’, dashing off rough and often ribald sonnets with a feel of improvisation. They were the jazz poets or rap artists of the Quattrocento, very different from refined neo-Petrarchan poets like Poliziano and Landucci. Some of Cammelli’s satirical poems are just a catalogue of ingenious insults – the railing which he calls ‘dire pepe’, ‘talking pepper’ – but he has also a likeable, down-at-heel nonchalance. The elegant Cardinal Bibbiena summed up Cammelli’s abrasive style well enough: ‘le facezie, il sale, il miele’ – ‘jokes, salt and honey’.

I was glad to become acquainted with Cammelli through his presence in Leonardo’s manuscripts, and with the even more scurrilous Tuscan satirist Bernardo Bellincioni, with whom Leonardo later collaborated in a Milanese theatrical extravaganza called Il Paradiso. They are not perhaps the kind of people one would associate with the great Renaissance Man of legend, but they were flesh-and-blood companions of the real Leonardo in Florence in the late 1470s. Leonardo’s skills as a player of the lira da braccio (not a harp-shaped lyre, as is often thought, but an early kind of violin) would be connected with these rimesters.

Another man whose handwriting is found in these pages is the engaging Tommaso di Giovanni Masini, generally known under the imposing alias of ‘Zoroastro’, though also answering to other nicknames such as ‘Indovino’ (Fortune-Teller) and ‘Gallozzolo’ (Gall-Nut). A humble gardener’s son from a village near Florence, Tommaso gained a picturesque reputation as an alchemist and magician; he was also a vegetarian (as Leonardo was reputed to be): ‘He would not kill a flea for any reason whatever; he preferred to dress in linen so as not to wear something dead.’ He flits through Leonardo’s story, over many decades; he probably joined Leonardo’s workshop in Florence as a teenager in the late 1470s, and is later mentioned (as ‘Geroastro’) as part of Leonardo’s entourage in Milan. In 1505, back in Florence, he is documented ‘grinding colours’ for the Battle of Anghiari fresco in the Palazzo Vecchio. Despite his picturesque reputation, he appears in eminently practical roles in Leonardo’s notebooks. A list of studio activities in 1493 mentions him making candlesticks; a contemporary described him as a ‘blacksmith’. In 1493, Leonardo was involved in casting the gigantic equestrian bronze known as the Sforza Horse, and doubtless Masini was involved in that too, and in many other projects: military, architectural and indeed aviational. Given his alchemical skills, I cannot resist attributing to him a recipe written out by Leonardo, probably in the late 1480s. Headed ‘Deadly Smoke’ (‘Fumo Mortale’), and appearing on a sheet related to naval warfare, its constituents are:

Arsenic mixed with sulphur and realgar
Medicinal rosewater
Venom of toad – that is, land-toad
Slaver of mad dog
Decoction of dogwood berries
Tarantula from Taranto

Tommaso died in Rome in 1520, the year after Leonardo. A Latin epitaph inscribed on his tomb in Sant’Agata dei Goti commemorated him as ‘Zoroastro Masino, a man outstanding for his probity, his innocence and his liberality, and a true Philosopher who looked into the darkness of Nature to the admirable benefit of Nature herself’. Leonardo would not have minded this for his own epitaph: ‘ad naturae obscuritatem spectat.’

It was Tommaso Masini who compiled a list of Leonardo’s household expenses on two sheets now in the Codex Arundel: a list all the more pungent because it belongs to the summer of 1504, and therefore offers a domestic glimpse behind the scenes of the Mona Lisa, on which Leonardo was then at work. ‘On the morning of St Zanobio’s Day, 25 May 1504, I had from Lionardo Vinci 15 gold ducats and began to spend them,’ Tommaso writes. On that first day, a Saturday, he paid 62 soldi to a certain Mona Margarita, who appears elsewhere in the accounts associated with horses; and 20 soldi for some repairs to the master’s ring. The shopping he did that day is itemised as follows: clothes, eggs, velvet, wine, bread, meat, mulberries, mushrooms, salad, fruit, candles, a partridge, flour. Saturday was the big spending day, perhaps for a party of some sort at the studio of Leonardo da Vinci, and on the following three days Tommaso buys only the basics: bread, wine, meat, soup and fruit. On the basis of this small sample, Leonardo was spending about 240 soldi (three ducats) a week on food for his household.

Another shopping list, in Leonardo’s hand, belongs to around the same time. In this he records buying a rather spicier fare of peppered bread (‘pane inpepato’), eels and apricots, as well as two dozen laces, a sword and a knife, and a little cross purchased from a man called Paolo. There is a visit to the barber, for he kept himself well groomed, and then a curious item which has attracted some note: ‘per dire la ventura . . . 6 soldi’. That a man so axiomatically unimpressed by superstition spent good money on ‘having his fortune told’ is surprising – what is it he wished to know about his destiny? Further accountings of July 1504 are on a page of the Codex Atlanticus – ‘On the morning of Friday 19 July I have 7 florins left and 22 in the cashbox’ etc – and on the same page, poignantly mingled among the day-to-day disbursements, Leonardo records the death of his father: ‘On Wednesday at the 7th hour Ser Piero da Vinci died, on 9 July 1504.’

The name most frequently found in Leonardo’s notebooks is ‘Salai’, the nickname (roughly meaning ‘Little Devil’) of his wayward young apprentice Giacomo Caprotti. He joined Leonardo’s Milanese studio in 1490, at the age of ten, and remained with him for nearly thirty years: his companion, confidant and (on the well-informed testimony of the Milanese painter Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo) lover. The narration of Giacomo’s escapades during his first year of apprenticeship is certainly the longest continuous account of another person’s activities to be found in all Leonardo’s writings. Its intention is precisely an account, since it itemises the expenses arising from the boy’s misdeeds. It seems to have been written at a single sitting: the ink colour is a uniform dark brown. It was no doubt intended for Giacomo’s father, who was to foot the bill, but it acquires in extenso a curiously personal coloration, a tone of exasperated fondness, so that what is intended as a rather crotchety list of complaints achieves a quality almost of reverie. The narrative begins ‘on the second day’, i.e. Monday, 23 July 1490:

On the second day I had 2 shirts cut for him, a pair of stockings and a jerkin, and when I put aside the money to pay for these things he stole the money out of my purse, and I could never make him confess, though I was quite certain of it. 4 lire.

The day after this I went to supper with Giacomo Andrea and the aforesaid Giacomo ate for 2, and did mischief for 4, inasfar as he broke three oil-flasks, and knocked over the wine, and after this he came to supper where I . . . [sentence unfinished]

Item. On 7 September he stole a pen worth 22 soldi from Marco [d’Oggiono] who was living with me. It was a silverpoint pen, and he took it from Marco’s studio, and after Marco had searched all over for it, he found it hidden in the said Giacomo’s chest. 1 Lira.

Item. On the 26 January following, I was at the house of Messer Galeazzo da Sanseverino, arranging the pageant for his joust, and certain footmen had undressed to try on costumes for the wild men in the pageant. One of them left his purse lying on a bed, among some clothes, and Giacomo got to it and took all the money he could find in it. 2 lire 4 soldi.

Item. At that same house Maestro Agostino da Pavia gave me a Turkish hide to have a pair of short boots made, and within a month this Giacomo had stolen it from me, and sold it to a shoemaker for 20 soldi, and with the money, as he himself confessed to me, he bought aniseed sweets. 2 lire.

Item. Again, on the 2 April, Giovan Antonio [Boltraffio] having left a silverpoint on top of one of his drawings, this Giacomo stole it. And this was of the value of 24 soldi. 1 lira 4 soldi.

In the margin, summing it all up, Leonardo writes four words: ‘ladro bugiardo ostinato ghiotto’ – ‘thief, liar, stubborn, greedy’. Thus Giacomo’s very bad report – delivered with a faint twinkle in the maestro’s eye.

The account finishes with a list of clothing expenses, from which it appears that Salai was furnished with one cloak, six shirts, three jerkins, four pairs of stockings, one lined doublet, 24 pairs of shoes, a cap and some laces, at a total cost of 32 lire. The list is headed ‘The First Year’, which like the rest of the document seems balanced between accountancy and romance. This picaresque story of mischief and thievery has almost an air of silent movie comedy: the artful dodger in action, with suitable tiptoeing music from the piano accompaniment. It is full also of wonderful detail: the aniseed gobstoppers, the Turkish leather, the purse on the bed, the little flasks of oil broken on the floor.

An unexpected sideline of the Leonardo notebooks is their scattering of light-heartedness. One of the best moments is a passage in a notebook of c.1508, which has the dense and rebarbative look of one of his scientific ‘demonstrations’, but is actually entitled ‘Why dogs willingly sniff one another’s bottoms’ (I like that ‘willingly’), and solemnly discusses the issues of canine sociology involved.

Leonardo liked jokes, and wrote a number of them down. This is a conventional activity to which no special significance should be attached – the zibaldoni or commonplace books of the day are full of them – but it seems that humour was a part of his life. The jokes are of very variable quality: I suppose the written-down joke must be considered a pale reflection of the told joke – one must imagine the magisterially deadpan delivery. Some of them turn on terrible puns, and some seem to have lost whatever point they had down a lexical cul-de-sac. Some are satirical, particularly anti-clerical, and some are mildly dirty, in what we would think of as a robust Chaucerian vein. Both the satire and the bawdy have clear antecedents in the novelle of Boccaccio and his imitators, and more immediately in the Renaissance collections of facetiae (‘pleasantries’) – pre-eminently those of Poggio Bracciolini, some of which are quite salty. Here are a couple of Leonardian pleasantries written down in the early 1490s:

A man was trying to prove on the authority of Pythagoras that he had lived in this world before, and another man would not accept his argument. So the first man said: ‘As a sign that I have been here before, I remember that you were a miller.’ And the other, thinking this was said to mock him, replied: ‘You are right, for now I remember you were the ass which carried the flour for me.’

A woman was washing clothes, and her feet were very red with cold. A priest who was passing by was amazed by this, and asked her where the redness came from, to which the woman replied that it was caused by a fire underneath her. Then the priest took in hand that part of him which made him more priest than nun, and drawing near to her, asked her very politely if she would be kind enough to light up his candle.

And here is a literary joke: ‘If Petrarch was so madly in love with bay-leaves it’s because they taste so good with sausage and thrush’ – punning on lauro, the bay tree, and Petrarch’s Laura. These jokes are not on the whole very funny, but they carry a far-off sound of laughter which we might otherwise forget to listen for.