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.’

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