24 September 2019
The technique of printing with moveable type was invented in Germany in the decade before Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was born; as he reached his teens the new technology had already spread to Italy, thanks largely to the southwards emigration of German printers. Over the following decades increasing numbers of books were printed in a large number of cities and towns across the Italian peninsula. With his vast written output — it’s estimated he produced 28,000 pages of writing, of which only about 25% survives today — Leonardo was a significant ‘author’ by any standards, but to what extent was he aware of printing? Did he ever intend to publish the various investigations he undertook throughout his career?
Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci attributed to his pupil, Francesco Melzi
Leonardo had an intense interest in machines of all kinds and spent a lot of his time inventing new ones, both on paper and as actual constructions. It seems unlikely that the printing press, one of the dominant new technologies of the time, would have escaped his attention. The two cities where he spent his first fifty years — Florence, where he trained as an artist and embarked on his career, and Milan, where he worked at the Sforza court for nearly two decades — would have given him ample opportunity to visit printing shops and see how they organised their work. A drawing in the Codex Atlanticus shows us his improved version of a printing press, which would in effect have semi-automated the process and meant that only one ‘pressman’, rather than the normal pair, would have been needed to operate the machine. Curiously, there seems to be no reference in any of Leonardo’s work to Gutenberg’s principal invention of moveable type (the printing press itself was merely a variant of a wine or olive press, machines which had been familiar for many centuries). If Leonardo did ever visit a printing house, it is intriguing to speculate what might have run through his mind as he watched compositors setting type line by line exactly as he himself wrote by hand, in ‘mirror script’, going from right to left, and reversing all the letters.
Clearer evidence of Leonardo’s interest in printed books comes from his library. The majority of volumes mentioned in his several surviving lists of the books which belonged to him at various points are printed ones. They are surprisingly eclectic — editions of chivalric romances and other contemporary vernacular literature, translations of Greek and Latin authors, religious texts, scientific treatises and manuals and introductory works on the subjects and topics which interested him or which he felt he needed to master as part of his scientific investigations. They also reflect the widening range of the emergent publishing industry and its markets.
It is not known whether Leonardo ever planned to produce printed editions of his writings on the various subjects on which he intended to write ‘treatises’, such as the ‘Book on Water’ which forms the core of the Codex Leicester recently displayed at the British Library. But there’s no evidence that he wanted to keep them secret. His mirror script, once believed to be a kind of encryption, is now thought simply to reflect the way Leonardo, as a left-hander, found it most comfortable to write. In the more finished notebooks, such as Codex Leicester or many sheets in Codex Arundel, there is a clear attempt on Leonardo’s part to design a clear and readable page layout, with a block of text and a wide margin with drawings and other notes alongside or even keyed into the main content. Within that content, there is often an implied interlocutor or potential/eventual reader in the way he frames his discussion of a topic. It is more probable — and characteristic of Leonardo’s working practices in general — that his notes on various subjects never attained the kind of order and arrangement which would have been necessary if they were ever going to make the transition to published texts.
The spheres of manuscript and print continued to interact in unexpected ways during what can be called the long afterlife of Leonardo’s notebooks. Two items in the last section of the British Library exhibition gave an intriguing glimpse into the continuing complexities of this relationship as far as Leonardo’s writings are concerned, showing how interest in Leonardo’s scientific thinking remained alive over subsequent centuries thanks to various networks of scholars and collectors. Both texts relate to the work of arranging and compiling the notebooks according to subject after Leonardo’s death in 1519, which was started by Francesco Melzi, the pupil to whom he had bequeathed his manuscripts, and continued by other scholars after their dispersal following Melzi’s death in 1570, most significantly in Rome (where many notebooks had ended up) at the beginning of the 17th century.
Del Moto e Misura dell’Acqua (Bologna: a spese di Francesco Cardinale, 1828)
Del Moto e Misura dell’Acqua [‘On the Motion and Measurement of Water’] was published by Francesco Cardinale in Bologna in 1828, over 300 years after Leonardo’s death, as part of a multi-volume collection of works by Italian authors on water. Cardinale worked from a copy of a manuscript which had been compiled in the 1630s for the collection of Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597–1679), the nephew of Pope Urban VIII, by the Dominican monk Luigi Maria Arconati, whose father owned eleven manuscripts by Leonardo, today in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. In arranging his compilation of Leonardo’s notes, Arconati found a model in a recent publication on the subject, Bernardo Castelli’s Della misura dell’Acque correnti, published in Rome in 1628 and dedicated to Urban VIII (Castelli, a Benedictine abbot, is described on the title-page as the Pope’s official mathematician).
In the case of the second item, King's MS 284, the thread of transmission from Leonardo’s originals is even more complicated. It contains what is perhaps the most important of these posthumous thematic compilations, the Trattato della Pittura or treatise on painting. This work was initiated by Melzi, who, with collaborators, worked systematically through the notebooks in his possession; the resulting text, now Codex Urbinas Latinus 1270 in the Vatican Library, was never completed; but it became the source (although the manuscript itself disappeared from view for over two centuries) for numerous later abbreviated manuscript versions. It is once again in Rome in the 1630s that a new wave of systematic work on the text, following on from Melzi, was undertaken, again drawing on the collection of Arconati’s father, in preparation for the publication of two printed editions, in the Italian original and French translation, in Paris in 1651. The British Library manuscript is a copy of this printed edition together with the illustrations based on Nicolas Poussin’s drawings for the Paris edition.
These complex trajectories from manuscript to print and back again reflect and continue what can be seen as the intrinsic complications of Leonardo’s relationship as a writer to publication and to his readers.
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval
07 August 2019
Are you looking for something to read over the holiday season? Then look no further than some of the books which have accompanied our major exhibitions, ranging from Writing: Making Your Mark to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms.
Writing: Making Your Mark is on at the British Library until 27 August. The book, featuring contributions by the exhibition curators and other experts, is available from the Library shop (hardback £30).
The exhibition book for Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, edited by guest curator Juliana Barone, is also available from our shop (£20), and is written by leading Leonardo scholars from across Italy, including the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
The catalogue for our stupendous Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War exhibition (which ended earlier this year), edited by Claire Breay and Jo Story, is still available in paperback (£25).
Finally, if Harry Potter is your thing, why not indulge yourself in a copy of the book written especially for Harry Potter: A History of Magic? Published by Bloomsbury in association with the British Library, the version designed especially for younger audiences can be purchased here (£9.99).
Writing: Making Your Mark is on at the British Library until 27 August 2019.
The run of Leonardo: A Mind in Motion extends until 8 September 2019.
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval
03 August 2019
This summer, unusually, we have not one but two major exhibitions open at the British Library. Writing: Making Your Mark and Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion both have on display items cared for by the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts team, alongside star objects loaned by other institutions and owners. They're definitely both worth a visit, before 27 August in the case of Writing, while Leonardo continues until 8 September.
In Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, three of the great Renaissance thinker's notebooks are shown together for the first time. Alongside the Library's own Codex Arundel (Arundel MS 263) is the Codex Forster II, on loan from the V&A, and the Codex Leicester, owned by Bill Gates. These manuscripts reveal Leonardo's observations on subjects such as water in motion, since he considered motion to be 'the cause of all life'.
Writing: Making Your Mark examines the evolution of writing, one of mankind's greatest achievements, from hieroglyphs to emojis. The roll-call of the objects and books on display is astonishing, from a Mayan monument (AD 647) to the Gutenberg indulgence (c. 1454) and the longest intact papyri in the Library's collections (AD 572). We have previously blogged about some of our favourite items, such as the labels used to identify Egyptian mummies and a schoolchild's homework preserved on a wax tablet.
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval
20 July 2019
Here at the British Library we’re big fans of Renaissance art and science. It’s the subject of our current exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion (7 June–8 September 2019), and we also have a display about it in our permanent free exhibition space, The Treasures Gallery. Here’s a sneak peek of some of the beauties you can see in the Treasures display.
Early Renaissance Italy witnessed a remarkable flowering of the arts and sciences. Humanist scholars looked to medieval libraries to discover works from the past, which they copied, studied and developed in new ways. They were particularly interested in discovering classical works of ancient Greek and Roman culture, building on the movement to recover classical texts that had been taking place since the 12th century. But they were also stimulated by works of medieval science, both from the Latin and Arabic traditions.
The increased study of plants during the Renaissance lead towards the development of the modern field of botany. In medieval Europe, knowledge about plants and their medicinal properties was transmitted in illustrated manuscripts known as herbals. They were based on ancient Latin and Greek sources, compiled and updated by medieval scholars. In the Renaissance, people started to revise herbals based on first-hand examinations of plants. This manuscript, known as the Codex Bellunensis, is largely an adaptation of the ancient work on medicinal plants, De Materia Medica by the Greek physician Dioscorides. But it also includes observations of local flora, in this case from the lower Dolomite Mountains in Northern Italy. On the left is the earliest known representation of the plant edelweiss, shown alongside eupatorium, agrimony and valerian.
Renaissance scholars also looked to the Arabic world as a source of knowledge. This manuscript contains De aspectibus, a Latin translation of Kitāb al-Manāẓir (Book of Optics) by the 11th-century Arabic scholar Ibn al-Haytham, known in Latin as Alhazen. This work was the first to systematically demonstrate that vision is the result of light reflecting off objects and entering the eye. The book also includes ‘Alhazen's problem’, a mathematical problem concerning the reflection of light from spherical mirrors that was not solved algebraically until 1965. Translated into Latin around 1200, the work was carefully studied by western thinkers such as Roger Bacon (c.1219/20–c.1292) and Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519). The pages shown here examine the subject of binocular vision, with the diagrams illustrating how the visual axes of the two eyes, labelled ‘a’ and ‘g’, intersect.
The Aratea is a poem about the ancient constellations and their mythological origins. It was originally written in Greek by the ancient poet Aratus in the 3rd century BC. This particular Latin translation was made in around AD 14–19 by the Roman general Germanicus, who was the nephew of the emperor Tiberius, the father of Caligula and the grandfather of Nero, no less. The poem was an important source for the study of astronomy throughout the Middle Ages, but the humanist interest in rediscovering authentic classical texts led to a surge in its popularity in 15th-century Italy. This copy belonged to Francesco Sassetti of Florence (1421–90), a prominent banker for the Medici family. The pages on display describe and illustrate the constellations closest to the north celestial pole, Ursa Major (the Great Bear), Ursa Minor (the Lesser Bear), and Draco.
To see these manuscripts in person, come and visit the Treasures Gallery at the British Library. To learn even more about Renaissance achievements in art and science, don’t miss our current exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion at the British Library from 7 June until 8 September 2019.
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval
12 July 2019
The British Library’s current exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion (7 June–8 September 2019), investigates the great thinker’s fascination with water. But Leonardo was not the first to send his imagination plunging beneath the waves. Here are some of the ways that medieval people imagined being able to explore underwater.
Leonardo’s studies of the River Arno: British Library, Arundel MS 263, f. 149r
Beowulf dives into the mere, Beowulf, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 166r
In the Anglo-Saxon period, underwater exploration belonged to the world of heroic poetry rather than human technology. In the Old English epic poem Beowulf, the hero journeys to the bottom of a horrifying mere to fight Grendel’s Mother in her watery lair. He dresses in full war-gear, a mail-shirt and a gold boar-embellished helmet, and arms himself with a precious sword named Hrunting. Then after briefly settling his affairs in case of his death, he dives into the lake:
The man of the Weder-Geats moved briskly, would hardly wait for an answer; the surging water took possession of the war-maker. It was then a good part of the day before he could make out the level bottom (Translation by R. D. Fulk).
In a hall in the depths of the lake, Beowulf and Grendel’s Mother engage in a ferocious fight. For a long time the adversaries seem to be evenly matched, but the decisive moment comes when Beowulf notices an enormous sword that was made by giants in ancient times. He grabs the sword and swings it at the lake-woman, slicing off her head.
The poem makes no attempt to explain how Beowulf is able to survive underwater—he just can. His status as a legendary hero and the strongest man alive places him outside the ordinary limits of human ability. In a world of giants, dragons, magical swords and cursed treasure, the hero is a supernatural figure. Beowulf is up to any challenge, no diving apparatus required.
Alexander is lowered into the sea, Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 77v
Another of medieval literature’s most memorable underwater adventures is that of Alexander the Great. The ancient Macedonian king and formidable military commander was one of the greatest heroes of medieval romance. One episode associated with Alexander in the romance tradition describes how he travels to the bottom of the sea to explore its wonders.
Unlike Beowulf, Alexander is hampered by the real-world necessity of having to breathe. To solve this, he designs an air-tight barrel made from glass which is lowered on chains from a boat. Inside his proto-submarine, Alexander takes lamps to light his way and two animal companions, a cockerel to tell the time and a cat whose breath purifies the air.
Alexander’s underwater journey shows that medieval people were thinking creatively about how a person could venture safely underwater. That’s not to say that the design would work: for one thing, the barrel would float without ballast; for another, a cat’s breath does not purify air so Alexander would have a very limited air supply.
Alexander is lowered into the sea, Roman d'Alexandre, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 20v
Design for diving equipment, a mechanical sketchbook, Add MS 34113, f. 180v
Is not until the 15th-century that people began to design diving apparatus with a view to practical use. This sketchbook, compiled in the 15th-century by an unknown Italian engineer, contains designs for diving suits that might have inspired Leonardo's (you can also see this manuscript in the exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, displaying a design for a water wheel).
The diving suits would allow a person freer movement than the barrel, so that the divers can carry out tasks underwater such as loading these baskets with rocks. With the figure on the left, the engineer has attempted to solve the problem of air supply by feeding air through a hose, connected at one end to a float on the surface and at the other to the diver’s mask. This is close to the design that was finally employed in the first successful diving suits, but with one major difference. The Renaissance engineer had not realised that the air supplied to the diver would have to be pressurised to account for the increased pressure underwater.
Leonardo’s design for Diving Apparatus, Arundel MS 263, f. 24v
Leonardo’s diving apparatus from the early 16th century follows roughly the same design as the anonymous sketchbook, but adds some improved features. His diving mask is provided with two hoses, one to bring fresh air in and the other to take old air out. He has realised that the hoses will need to be reinforced with metal rings to stop the water pressure from closing them up. The float is also modified to prevent water accidentally spilling into the air supply. But crucially, Leonardo did not think to add an air compressor to the design so in practice the diver would not be able to breathe in deep water.
It was not until the 18th century that the first successful diving suits were made. But from Beowulf to Leonardo, people had long been coming up with creative ways to explore the world beneath the waves. To admire Leonardo’s design for diving apparatus in person, don’t miss the exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, at the British Library from 7 June–8 September 2019.
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval
16 June 2019
Our major new exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, is open now at the British Library. It features highlights from three of the Reniassance thinker's extraordinary notebooks: the Codex Forster II, on loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum; the Codex Leicester, owned by Bill Gates; and the Library's Codex Arundel. The exhibition is on until 8 September, and tickets for adults cost £7 (members and children under 11 enter for free and other concessions are available).
Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion marks the 500th anniversary of his death
Our exhibition takes the opportunity to to explore the inner workings of Leonardo's complex mind and his fascination with motion — which he considered to be ‘the cause of all life’. Visitors will be able to marvel at his detailed studies of natural phenomena, and to see studies for his painting The Virgin of the Rocks.
You can explore Leonardo's Codex Arundel for yourself on the Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Leonardo described this notebook on the opening page as a 'a collection without order, drawn from many papers, which I have copied here, hoping to arrange them later each in its place according to the subjects of which they treat'. It contains pages datable between 1478 and 1518 (though mostly to 1508), and written variously at Florence, Milan, Rome and Amboise in France. Tthis notebook is named after an early owner, Thomas Howard (1585–1646), 2nd earl of Arundel, 4th earl of Surrey, and 1st earl of Norfolk. It was presented by Henry Howard (d. 1684), 6th duke of Norfolk, to the Royal Society in 1667, from whom it was purchased by the British Museum in 1831.
This image from Codex Arundel, taken using UV light, shows Leonardo da Vinci's studies of limbs from different viewpoints
Our Events programme contains a number of talks connected to the work of Leonardo da Vinci, including Waterways (17 June), Leonardo da Vinci’s Scientific Impact with Domenico Laurenza (2 July), and a curator talk by Juliana Barone (15 July). You can book tickets for all these on our Events pages.
Follow us on Twitter @BL Medieval
07 June 2019
On 7 June an exciting new exhibition opens at the British Library. Marking 500 years since his death, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion showcases Leonardo’s manuscript legacy by displaying together — for the first time in the UK — highlights from one of the British Library’s finest treasures, the Codex Arundel, alongside Codex Forster II from the V&A, and a selection of sheets from the Codex Leicester, widely considered to be one of Leonardo’s most important scientific journals and now owned by Bill Gates.
Observations on the course of the River Arno: British Library, Arundel MS 263, f. 149r
Studies on the use of obstacles: Seattle, Bill Gates Collection, Codex Leicester, 13B (ff. 13v–24r) © bgC3
The exhibition explores Leonardo’s fascination with motion, which he considered to be ‘the cause of all life’. It reveals the major role he ascribed to motion in his quest to understand the natural world and discover the rigorous laws which govern nature. In particular, it follows his life-long study of water, which for Leonardo was the driving force of nature.
Leonardo’s remarkable notebooks, written in his distinctive mirror writing, are used in the exhibition to illustrate how his detailed studies of natural phenomena — and in particular of water — influenced his work both as an artist and an inventor. With intricate drawings and diagrams crowding every page, visitors will be able to follow Leonardo in his tireless pursuit of knowledge, track his thoughts and experiments, and marvel at his insights into subjects as varied as the formation of waves and air bubbles, river flow, bird flight, and the nature of light and shadow.
Underwater breathing apparatus: British Library, Arundel MS 263, f. 24v
Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion is on at the British Library from 7 June to 8 September 2019. The exhibition is in partnership with Automobili Pininfarina. It is accompanied by a series of events inspired by the exhibition, including a range of adult learning courses, free family workshops and an audio-description tour for blind and partially sighted visitors. An exhibition book edited by Dr Juliana Barone, associate curator, is available from the British Library shop.
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval