Winter 2013-2014

Inventory / The Master’s Shelf

Leonardo’s book lists

Martin Kemp and Manya Pagiavla

“Inventory” is a column that examines or presents a list, catalogue, or register.

The maestro miscalculates. In the Codex Madrid II (folio 3v) in Spain’s Biblioteca Nacional, Leonardo lists fifty volumes (“25 small books; 2 larger books; 16 rather larger books; 6 books on vellum; 1 book bound in green chamois”) but adds them incorrectly to arrive at a total of forty-eight. These volumes are not considered to be part of his library; many scholars speculate that they are his own notebooks and collections of drawings.

Leonardo da Vinci announced himself as an uomo sanza lettere—a man without book learning. He stressed that his prime source was “experience,” above all the testimony of his own eyes. There is a measure of standard rhetoric in his stance, but he was right to confess that he was not a learned man, compared to his humanist colleagues at court who were extensively read in Latin and even Greek literature or to university-educated scholars who could readily quote a wide range of sources from medieval and ancient philosophy.

Leonardo, as the son (albeit illegitimate) of a leading family of notaries and landowners, probably received an “abacus school” education in the basics of numeracy and literacy. He may have learned some schoolboy Latin, but not to great effect. His manuscripts testify to a number of attempts to master Latin, which provided the only access to the most advanced sciences, and his library contained a number of Latin grammars and vocabularies that he used for this purpose.

The internal evidence of his manuscripts, however, indicates that he avidly sought a theoretical framework within which he could articulate his observations. He was able to build inventively on the few vernacular sources that were available, resorting to Latin texts when he had to. His memoranda indicate that he was keen to quiz colleagues about the many topics that attracted his curiosity, and there are a number of scattered references and lists of authors and books in his manuscripts, often with indications that these were sources he intended to consult.

On two occasions, Leonardo actually listed books that were definitely in his possession. The earlier, comprising thirty-seven or thirty-eight books (depending on how one interprets what appears to be a repetition), is in the large, miscellaneous compilation known as the Codex Atlanticus and seems to date from the early 1490s. The second is in one of the two codices in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid. It is dateable to 1503–1504, and records ninety-eight items locked in a chest, with eighteen others held in a box in the monastery of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. In the same codex, he refers to a further fifty books solely in terms of their size and binding; these may well be his own manuscripts.

In neither case do we know what occasioned his making the lists. We cannot assume that either is a complete inventory of the books that he owned. It may be that he specifically listed books because they were in a location other than his studio or living quarters. It is difficult to imagine, for example, that he did not own any of Dante’s writings, which he knows in considerable detail, or Alberti’s On Painting, which is an implicit point of reference in his art theory. Whatever their status, the lists do indicate his possession of a library that was considerable for someone who was a practitioner of art, architecture, and engineering.

Unsurprisingly, Leonardo’s booklists reflect his known range of interests in Aristotelian philosophy and more broadly in classical science, especially mathematics, either directly or via medieval sources. There is also an indication of his engagement with Islamic science, but no mention of Alhazen’s treatise on optics, which he certainly knew. Anatomy, architecture, and engineering are represented, if less extensively than we might expect. The absence of writing on painting reflects that very little was available around 1500.

However, there are surprises, both in the overall shape of the library and in its details. Literary works are notably well represented. In his paragone, his comparison of the various arts, he was scathing about poetry, but he owned a good collection of poetic and literary works, together with a number of compilations of letters, such as those of Ovid, and treatises on rhetoric. Perhaps he just liked reading them. We should also take into account those works of didactic poetry that provided expositions of natural philosophy. Even more surprising are the books on “natural magic,” including astrology, about which he was very dismissive and the tracts on palmistry, which he regarded as spurious. The books on religious matters—which could be seen as reflecting his need to be informed about the subject matter artists were typically expected to represent—confirm that his theological interests were orthodox and not at all Dan Brownish. There is no whiff of heresy.

Though the lists provide precious insights into Leonardo’s inner life, there is a wider need for a full-scale, up-to-date catalogue of the books to which he explicitly or implicitly referred in his manuscripts, together with an analysis of how he used them. That would be a big job.

The first two columns present the transcripts of Leonardo’s two inventories as provided in the sources listed in the bibliography. In the late nineteenth century, Girolamo d’Adda studied the list of books in the Codex Atlanticus, as did Jean Paul Richter. In the 1970s, Ladislao Reti studied the list in the newly discovered Codex Madrid II. In his commentary on Richter, Carlo Pedretti drew upon both Reti and d’Adda. Leonardo’s erratic spelling and the difficulty in deciphering the master’s mirror handwriting result in inconsistencies among various transcripts of the same inventory.

The final column focuses on the most likely identification of items in the lists. It results from a comparative study of the earlier scholarship, as well as the authors’ own investigations. Those that are offered here with reasonable confidence are marked with a green dot; less definite ones with a yellow dot; those marked with a red dot are uncertain or unidentifiable.

A major problem with library inventories in this period of the Renaissance is the inconsistent recording—judged by modern standards—of bibliographical data. Sometimes only an author or a title (often in summary fashion) is indicated. Secure identifications of a specific edition are often impossible with the minimal data provided. Some entries might signal printed books, whereas others might indicate manuscripts. Modern identifications need to consider the likely date of the inventories as well as Leonardo’s location at the time. One must also take into account the popularity of a given title or author, which would determine the possible editions that Leonardo could have possessed. Thus, some inventory entries can be identified with reasonable confidence, whereas others cannot. We have correlated all significant attempts to identify the books, and, within the limits of this short study, we have striven to indicate particular editions wherever possible. A much larger study is needed to narrow down the identifications of the books in Leonardo’s lists, and to set them in the context of more scattered indications in his notebooks as a whole.

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