Some friends recently gave me a book containing many selections from da Vinci’s notebooks; both the text and hundreds of image reproductions as well. His notebooks were kind of like a 15th century blog in which he made far-ranging observations about any and every subject that interested him, as well as containing numerous small artistic masterpieces. They serve as the very definition and archetype for what constitutes a “Renaissance Man”. For several years, I’ve owned the text-only publication of the complete notebooks, but reading it was a particularly frustrating excersise: “I have this fascinating idea. It will make everything better. It looks like this [See Figure 1]”, and of course being text only, there is no figure 1. Maddening. However, the version I just receive is complete with figures. It’s a beautiful book, and I was delighted to receive it.
Reading Leonardo has always been a fairly odd experience to me. He seems to be at the crossroads of so many different ways of looking at the world, and he blends them all together. He’s often this hard-headed rationalist applying what is essentially the scientific method to his observations, but he’s of course working before this method was fully codified, so it’s not as rigorous. He also sometimes echoes many classical ideas (say, talking about the humours of the personality), and there’s this strong mystical strain running through it all as well, almost like an alchemist. He makes the whole thing into a melange that has a unique flavor to it.
One of the most striking things about the notebooks is simply their volume. There are something like 7000 pages altogether. I have to think that this represents the vast, vast majority of his effort throughout his career. A lot of the sketches found there certainly were perparatory studies for larger finished works, but I have to think that a LOT of them were never intended to be anything BUT entries in his sketchbook, and probably for nobody else to see, for that matter. At the risk of sounding like I’m moralising, that seems like a distinctly non-modern approach to work. That we live in an intensely commercially oriented world is commonplace, and it can hardly not affect artists to some degree as well. How many of us go about most of our work without having some thoughts about making a sale? Now, I’m all for selling art, and love to do so whenever possible… we do produce a commodity, after all. However, I think there’s a real value in also having a sandbox in which we can “just play”. I think maybe that’s the real magic of Leonardo’s notebooks: they were the playground in which a unique brain simply had fun. Maybe we should all do that.