Although Leonardo’s most lasting fame is through some of the world’s most recognized paintings: his Mona Lisa and Last Supper, he actually only completed about two dozens paintings. He was far more prolific as a writer!
Thanks to his devoted student and heir, Francesco Melzi, we have 6,000 sheets of his notes—drawings, philosophic essays, parables, memos to himself, chemical recipes, and lists of words and quotes that intrigued him. But scholars think those pages represent only a fifth of all Leonardo’s writings.
They provide a stunning insight into the consummate student the master artist was all his life, and his never-ending thirst to understand and depict the world around him. Sadly, the notebooks (or Codices) reveal little of Leonardo’s personal life and friendships. They are not diaries. But, like his paintings do for his subjects, these writings invite us into “the motions of the mind”—his opinions, his dreams, his sense of humor, his artistic philosophies and techniques, his sense of invention and adventure. They show us in palpable ways, the man who would write, “The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.”
Leonardo began keeping the notebooks in Milan, after leaving Florence to join the court of Ludovico Sforza. He arrived as a musician, perhaps sent by Lorenzo the Magnificent as a cultural emissary. Leonardo promoted himself in a letter to Sforza as a military engineer, architect, water engineer, sculptor, and painter—in that order!
In his notebooks, we can witness Leonardo’s quicksilver intellectual growth. Because he was illegitimate, Leonardo only received the most basic of reading and arithmetic education. No Latin. While he did attempt to teach it to himself, Leonardo was really not ever able to read scholarly treatises written by men of letters, always in Latin. This may have contributed to his tendency to dismiss knowledge gained by reading the thoughts of other people. Leonardo became a staunch advocate of firsthand observation and experimentation being the most profound method of learning.
“All sciences are vain and full of errors that are not born of Experience, mother of all certainty,” he wrote. “True sciences are the result of Experience which has passed through our senses… Anyone who conducts an argument by appealing to authority is not using his intelligence; he is just using his memory.”
These quotes are reflective of the rather strong opinions contained in Leonardo’s writings—something that guided me when trying to paint his personality in DA VINCI’S TIGER. I pulled directly from his notebooks for his dialogue, particularly in a friendly competition with Verrocchio regarding which was the superior art form, sculpture or painting. Leonardo didn’t like the mess associated with chiseling, for one thing!
He wrote: sculpting “is an extremely mechanical operation, generally accompanied by great sweat which mingles with dust… (the sculptor’s) face becomes plastered and powdered all over, which makes him look like a baker.” Conversely, “the painter sits before his work at the greatest of ease, well-dressed and applying delicate colors with his light brush. His residence is clean…he enjoys the accompaniment of music or the company of authors…without the crashing of hammers and other confused noises.” Leonardo also dismissed sculpture as an incomplete art: “painting embraces and contains within itself all visible things. It is the poverty of sculpture that it cannot do this (depict color or distance or surroundings).”
Leonardo may have written those passages as prepared text for a debate entertainment in the Sforza court (much like that created by Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton between Alexander and Thomas Jefferson over a federalized bank!)
He dealt poetry a total smackdown. “If you, O poet, tell a story with your pen, the painter with his brush can tell it more easily, with simpler completeness and less (tedium). The poet in describing the beauty of ugliness of any figure shows it to you bit by bit and over the course of time, while the painter will permit it to be seen in an instant.” He adds: “The poet (also) ranks far below the musician in (the representation) of invisible things.”
Despite his criticism of verse, Leonardo was often pretty poetic in his own fables and tales. For instance, he compares the love of virtue to a lark. “It dwells always on things honest and virtuous and takes up its abode in a noble heart, like the birds do in green woods upon flowery branches. And this love shows itself more in adversity than in prosperity, as light does which shines most were it finds the darkest spot.”
Leonardo could be bawdy as well as lofty. He kept lists of words and colloquialisms he found amusing, such as a list of synonyms for men’s genitalia.
Every thought on those 6,000 pages was written backwards, from right to left, decipherable only when held to a mirror. It was as if Leonardo was afraid of his thoughts being stolen, or intended to create his own mystique.
And for all his decrying of formal education, Leonardo amassed an impressive library of his own, 116 volumes we know of, including works by poets Ovid and Petrarch, chivalric romances, and dramas in addition to scientific treatises on architecture and the natural world.
Here are a few of my favorite Leonardo quotes:
“The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinion.”
“People of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”
“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
“The good painter paints two principal things—man and the intention of his mind. The first is easy and the second difficult.”
“When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
“Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master.”
“He who is fixed to a star does not change his mind.”
And finally, the one I use as my tagline, to remind me of who to admire and try to emulate: “I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection.”