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Inside Leonardo's Notebook


World-famous as a capital of fashion and design, Milan, Italy's second city, has a more modest reputation for cultural heritage.

The Leonardo da Vinci Codex Atlanticus with all
the 1200 manuscripts. The book was a box.

Here in the country's business and financial center, local pride focuses on contemporary success rather than past glory. And once visitors have taken in the many-spired Late Gothic cathedral, Leonardo's mural of "The Last Supper," and maybe a performance at La Scala, they tend to move on rapidly to the richer terrain of Venice, Florence or Rome.

But no city can have played so influential a role in the history of the Italian peninsula, from Roman times onward, without storing up its share of treasure along the way.

The Biblioteca Ambrosiana, which opened as one of Europe's first public libraries in 1609, would rank as a major tourist attraction in almost any other country. Its art gallery features paintings by Leonardo, Botticelli, Titian, Caravaggio and the full-scale "cartoon" (or preparatory drawing) for Raphael's monumental fresco of "The School of Athens" in the Vatican Museums.

At least as precious, but ordinarily visible only to scholars, is the Ambrosiana's collection of manuscripts and rare printed books. Holdings include a fifth-century illuminated copy of Homer's Iliad and a 14th-century edition of the works of Virgil, with hand-written annotations by the Renaissance poet Petrarch. Yet no item in the library's possession can be more intriguing to experts and laymen alike than Leonardo's Atlantic Codex.

With 1,119 pages of drawings and notes, almost all of them in Leonardo's own hand, the Atlantic Codex is by far the largest set of works by the archetype of universal genius. Leonardo's more famous Codex Leicester, currently the property of Bill Gates, is only 72 pages long.

"Codex" simply means a bound manuscript, and for more than four centuries the contents of this one remained in book form. Even after its custodians started splitting it up into 12 volumes beginning in the 1960s, they could not display more than a dozen pages at a time or reproduce the contents without distortions. The decision last year by the Ambrosiana's prefect, Msgr. Franco Buzzi, to free all the leaves from their bindings has thus vastly expanded the world's access to Leonardo's legacy.

The Ambrosiana will be exhibiting the entire Codex over the course of the next six years, 44 or 45 pages at a time for three months at a stretch -- the longest that international archival norms will allow such documents to be exposed to light. This approach offers the advantage of letting visitors focus on a manageable, topically organized selection from a body of work whose range encompasses, among many other subjects, anatomy, optics, geography, music and flight.

The library, which was founded by a cardinal, is still run by Catholic priests, and visiting this show can feel a bit like stepping into a shrine. With portraits of saintly authors hanging overhead, the Codex pages sit inside temperature-controlled cases like holy relics in their reliquaries, glowing dimly in 20 lumens of indirect light. Piped-in recordings of Gregorian chant add to the devotional ambience.

Only half of the exhibit is actually at the Ambrosiana; the rest is found in an even more ecclesiastical setting, the nearby sacristy of the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, part of the same complex that houses Leonardo's "The Last Supper."

All this religious context is incongruous, albeit in a characteristically Renaissance way, since the images themselves couldn't be more profane. The first show, which opened in September and closes early next month, is dedicated to Leonardo's designs for artillery and military architecture, including siege engines, cannons, fortresses and moats.

Drawing of water lifting device
by Leonardo da Vinci
The Biblioteca Ambrosiana
(click to enlarge)

Whatever their virtues as exercises in engineering (not obvious in every case to the untutored eye), these drawings of deadly machines are arresting for their sheer beauty.

What the exhibition catalog describes as a "shower of projectiles" passing over a crenellated fortress wall seems as artful as a fireworks display. Typical of Leonardo's drawings, where even fragmentary objects exemplify symmetry and coherence, this image also has a thoroughly organic feel, as if the explosions were a kind of flowering. A graceful sketch of a rearing horse on the same page fits naturally beside it.

The highlight of this show, as much for the improbable delight it inspires as for its bravura execution, is a drawing of shells emerging, amid clouds of almost downy smoke, from the mouths of two squat mortars. At the other end of the arc described by their flight, like the climax of a dazzling magic trick, the shells explode and discharge bouquets of smaller projectiles. So exuberant an image of violence would be at home in an exquisite children's book.

As future exhibitions in this series will show, the inventions displayed on the pages of the Atlantic Codex -- such as innovative pumps and excavators, a self-propelled car, machines for flying and walking on water -- would seem fanciful were they not so meticulously detailed and logically worked out.

One gets the feeling that the same relentless, overflowing imagination that conceived of these ingenious contraptions simply couldn't help making them beautiful in the bargain, as if driven by some sort of aesthetic hyperactivity. Yet it's clear, in observing the delicate lines and fine shading with which Leonardo portrayed even as unlovely a subject as a defensive system for flooding underground tunnels, that the very beauty of the rendering helps to make it intelligible, and therefore useful.

Writing in the Atlantic Codex itself, Leonardo explicitly affirmed the harmony of pleasure and practicality. "There cannot be beauty and utility?" he asked rhetorically, then answered himself by invoking two of his own great subjects -- "fortresses and men."



Francis X. Rocca. "Inside Leonardo's Notebook." The Wall Street Journal (November 4, 2009).

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Author

Francis X.  Rocca is the Vatican correspondent for Religion News Service (RNS) and a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal.  His writing has also appeared in the Washington Post, USA Today, Time, Forbes, the Chronicle of Higher Education, BusinessWeek, the Boston Globe and the Atlantic Monthly.  Rocca is co-author, with Rockwell A.  Schnabel, of The Next Superpower? (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).  An associate fellow of Berkeley College, Yale, and a former Fulbright fellow in Spain, he is a graduate of Harvard College (A.B.) and Yale University (Ph.D.).

Copyright © 2009 Wall Street Journal
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