See Leonardo da Vinci's Priceless Sketches at This New Florentine Exhibition

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The drawings, jottings, and schematics that make up Leonardo’s notebooks are priceless glimpses into the nature of genius.

Now, in a major new exhibition at the Uffizi, the most famous of these codices are returning home to Florence.

Earlier this year, in the penumbral light of Milan’s old Ambrosiana Library, I found myself staring closely at a folio from one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, part of the huge 1,119-sheet compilation known today as the Codex Atlanticus. Consisting of a series of notes on percussion instruments (music was one of. Leonardo’s many interests), it is a lovely example of the artistry that the Florentine genius brought to even these most personal of documents.

Casual yet crafted, the page alternates notes in Leonardo’s famous right-to-left mirror handwriting with drawings of wooden hammers, cogs, sound-wave diagrams, and a trio of cute curly flutes, all of it done in sepia ink, arranged on the page with a graphic designer’s instinctive feel for layout.

Then I noticed the rings: two overlapping circles of faded pink, with another, darker blob just to the lower left. A vision came to me. Hard at work, filling the paper from right to left, Leonardo (who worked on loose sheets that were only later bound into volumes) had allowed himself a goblet of Chianti, placing the base of the glass directly on the blank part of the page.

Absorbed as he was in his work, he spilled a little while topping up (he was a lefty, and the stain corresponds with a left-handed pour). Later—blank parts of his notebook pages could be filled days, months, or even years on—he simply wrote and drew over the stain as further thoughts and ideas tumbled from his brain.

Maybe it wasn’t Leonardo who left the mark. Maybe it was sculptor Pompeo Leoni, who, toward the end of the 16th century, acquired several Leonardo notebooks, separated the pages, and mounted them on large atlas sheets to create the Codex Atlanticus. Maybe it was a distracted librarian or scholar back in laxer days at the Ambrosiana, which has owned the codex since 1637, or maybe it was Napoleon, who seized the volume after invading Milan in 1796. (Kept briefly in Paris, it was given back in 1815 after his defeat.)

Conscious of the fact that, as leading Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp puts it in his latest book, Living with Leonardo, the artist’s life and works “have become repositories for wild theories to a degree that is not matched by any other figure,” I will leave my own personal contribution to Leonardo studies there for the experts and carbon daters to demolish.

The point of my tale is simply this: The codices bring us close to Leonardo da Vinci in a way that nothing else does, not even the delicate brushstrokes in the rivulet pattern in the hair of the Mona Lisa (and good luck with glimpsing those at the Louvre behind the security barrier and the bulletproof-glass case).


Filippo, left, and Niccolo Ricci of Stefano Ricci, the Florence-based fashion brand sponsoring the Uffizi exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci codices, pose at their silk factory with looms designed by Leonardo. Federico Ciamei

On October 30 at the Uffizi in Florence, with financial support from the Florentine fashion company Stefano Ricci, four of the Ambrosiana sheets along with 13 others from around the world will join what is considered one of Leonardo’s most precious codices, known as the Codex Leicester. The artist began to compile this codex in Florence in 1504. It was last displayed in the Tuscan city in 1982, when it was called the Codex Hammer, after its then owner, oil magnate Armand Hammer.

Bill Gates, who bought it at auction in 1994, broke with tradition and changed the name of the 72-page notebook back to its preHammer title, Codex Leicester, after the British earl who had purchased it in 1719. “Codex Gates…I thought that sounded silly,” the businessman and philanthropist explained on his blog in a May 2018 review of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo.

At its most basic, a codex is a handwritten book. For Leonardo, these were of two kinds. First, there were small leatherbound notebooks—Renaissance Moleskines, if you like—that he would hang from his belt and jot notes in when on the road or up a mountain examining fossils. Second were those made up of the loose sheets he covered in notes, drawings, calculations, and speculations when working at home.

Some of these, like the Codex Leicester, were bound together by the artist himself. Others were assembled long after Leonardo’s death by Leoni, like the collection of more than 550 drawings and notes currently in the Queen’s collection at Windsor Castle. These are the only two surviving codices in private hands; 21 others are in public museums or libraries. 

In the codices, you feel the raw force of Leonardo’s creativity and thirst for knowledge flowing onto the page. As Isaacson puts it in his best-selling biography, the notebooks “allow us to marvel at the beauty of a universal mind as it wanders exuberantly in free-range fashion over the arts and sciences.”

When I talked to him recently, Isaacson told me that his equivalent of my wine-stain moment was when he realized with a thrill that he could actually “see the compass point Leonardo put in the navel of Vitruvian Man.”

What makes the Codex Leicester so important, Isaacson told me, is that “the pages still exist in the order Leonardo wrote them. Other notebooks were broken up and sold in pieces, but the Codex Leicester remained intact.” As a result, it offers a rare chance, the biographer believes, to “see Leonardo’s mind at work and the scientific method being born.”

As an example, Isaacson pointed to Leonardo’s tussle with the question of how mountain springs are formed: “Is the water siphoned upward in the earth? Does it get pumped up from the center of the earth like blood gets pumped to a human’s head?” He explores these and other explanations, Isaacson continued, testing and discarding hypotheses until finally “he gets to the correct conclusion, that water is evaporated and condensed and comes down as rain that forms mountain springs.” 

As a preview of the worldwide events planned for next year to mark the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, the Codex Leicester will go on display in the 18 plexiglass mounts in which the 72 pages were encased in the early 1980s, shortly after Hammer purchased them. It will be accompanied by the Codescope, a digital aid developed by Corbis Productions to allow visitors to explore the codex page by page, enlarge details, turn Leonardo’s mirror handwriting around, and read English translations.


Folio 82R from the Codex Atlanticus, one of several Leonardo da Vinci notebooks on view at the Uffizi gallery in Florence. Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

Exhibition curator Paolo Galluzzi, director of the neighboring Museo Galileo, has also developed an innovative series of multimedia supports with his museum’s design lab. Visitors, he says, will find themselves “walking on water,” thanks to video projected enlargements of sketches and observations of the aqueous element that obsessed Leonardo—and that gives the exhibition its title, “The Codex Leicester. Water, Nature’s Microscope.”

Stefano Ricci was brought on board as a sponsor by the Uffizi’s German director, Eike Schmidt, who has swept away plenty of bureaucratic cobwebs, and encouraged private investment in this state-run gallery, since his appointment to one of Italy’s top museum jobs in November 2015.

But the company’s connection to Leonardo goes back to 2010, when it took over a piece of Florentine manufacturing history: a venerable silk factory and textile workshop called the Antico Setificio Fiorentino, in the Oltrarno, the city’s traditional artisans’ quarter. This warren of rooms is filled from wall to wall with ancient weaving machines—deftly operated by 15 female staff members—including an orditoio, or weft winder, built in the early 1800s according to a design by Leonardo.

Resembling a scaled-down, revolving wooden gasworks, it looks like something that might have been in one of the classrooms at Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. Little was known about the history of the orditoio when Stefano Ricci acquired the Antico Setificio.

Research promoted by the company’s creative director, Filippo Ricci, helped to uncover Leonardo’s original drawings, which were conserved in Windsor Castle. For Ricci, the company’s  sponsorship of the four Ambrosiana folios is an extension of that research, a furthe “tribute to Leonardo’s greatness…and to the connection with Florence that is in our DNA.”

As the Antico Setificio machines clatter away behind him, Ricci points out that the Uffizi exhibition will mark “the first time in over five centuries that these disparate Leonardo manuscripts have been reunited under the same roof in Florence.” It’s not only the Codescope and the bells-and-whistles exhibition that will present the Codex Leicester in a new light.

Leonardo expert Domenico Laurenza, who is working with Kemp on a new four-volume edition of the Gates-owned notebook, due out in 2019, will present research in the exhibition catalog that links the radical geological theories in the pages of the codex with the geographical discoveries made by Florentine navigator Amerigo Vespucci. Laurenza believes that Leonardo was likely to have been privy to information, then circulating in letter form, about the 1501–02 expedition to the New World by the explorer who lent his name to America.  

Leonardo may still be, for many, the “Mona Lisa guy,” but Kemp, who has been studying the world’s original Renaissance Man for more than 50 years, pointed out that even this famous painting can be illuminated by a better understanding of the codices. In his book, Leonardo by Leonardo, also due out in 2019, he shows how the Tuscan artist-scientist’s “remarkable sense of the world as a kind of organism that had undergone vast changes”—an idea developed in the Codex Leicester—is intimately connected with the Louvre’s most celebrated artwork.

Mona Lisa sits in front of a valley in which one can see a snaking river and two large lakes. Leonardo, Kemp argues, was painting the radical geological theories of the Codex Leicester—including his intuition that the earth is much older than the Bible would have us believe—directly into the picture. “Monumental but unstable,” Kemp writes, the watery scene in the background “deeply embodies…how landscapes bear witness to aeons of time, past, present, and future.”

That’s not all: The studies of water flows and eddies that Leonardo sketched in the margins of some of the Codex Leicester’s most beautiful sheets are reflected, Kemp believes, in Mona Lisa herself, in the “watery cascades of her fine hair, the little rivulets of silk falling from her neckline, and the spiraling currents of her silken shawl.” Isaacson concurs.

The spirit of inquiry that Leonardo indulged in the codices “enriched his life and made his art deeper,” he said. “If he had ignored science, if he had never dissected human faces or studied how light registers in the eye, he may have painted more paintings, but I doubt he would have ever accomplished the Mona Lisa.”