Good Reading : December January 2009
shelf life the Da Vinci codex Why is the sky blue? It’s not just a question three-year- olds ask. It was one of many questions tackled by the all-time Renaissance man, LEONARDO DA VINCI, in one of his famous notebooks, the Codex Leicester, as PAULA GRUNSEIT reports. O ne night, Bill Gates came home and told his wife he was going to buy a notebook. ‘That’s nice dear’, she may have said while reading the paper. Only it wasn’t your average kind of notebook. It happened to be one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, the Codex Leicester, and it was in fact to be the most expensive book ever sold after Bill Gates bought it at auction in 1994 for $30.8 million. ‘Codex’ is the Latin word for ‘block of wood’ and is the earliest example of what we relate to today as a book, taking the form of several pages stitched together along one side. Replacing earlier forms of the book, such as papyrus rolls and wax tablets, these days we tend to refer to a hand-written manuscript as a codex. Codices of note include the oldest Greek codex from the 4th century, a biblical manuscript called the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Alexandrinus, a Greek text of the Bible dating from the 5th century. And so to the Codex Leicester. Consisting of text and around 360 diagrams and sketches, the Codex Leicester is over 500 years old, and was written by Leonardo da Vinci in Milan between 1506 and 1510, when he was in his late 50s. Penned in sepia ink on 18 loose, double-sided sheets of folded linen paper, totalling 72 pages, the codex is written in da Vinci’s trademark ‘mirror writing’. This writing reads from right to left and can be read when held up to a mirror. There are several theories why da Vinci wrote like this. As he was left-handed, it is thought he may have written from right to left so as not to smear the ink. Others say he wrote this way to avoid unwanted attention from 24 goodreading i DECEMBER 2008 / JANUARY 2009 the Catholic Church because some of his ideas were so challenging to the institution. Another theory is that the writing was a form of code, his own form of copyright if you like, used to protect his ideas. As ‘the reader’ is often addressed in the manuscript we can assume that da Vinci eventually intended to publish his findings. The complex work is a remarkable and unique convergence of art and science, giving us an insight into the workings of the mind of an innovative genius. Having worked as a hydraulic engineer, da Vinci had a particular fascination for water and he devoted many pages of this codex to the nature and control of water. He writes about the ebb and flow of water through seas and riverbeds, of the velocity and pressure of water, the reflex action of waves, swimming under water, of building weirs, dams and bridges, of stopping erosion and even theorises about the moon having a watery surface. His accompanying illustrations depict water flowing around obstacles, a water drop hitting a flat surface and the form of waves. There are sketches of the ‘water stairs’ he designed to control erosion at La Sforzesca in 1494 for the villa of his patron, the Duke of Milan. These stairs are still in use today. Da Vinci embraces many other subjects in this compilation, including astronomy, geometry, the spherical form of the earth, the nature of weather, and the relationships between the sun, moon and earth. He includes drawings of the phases of the moon, the sun shining its light onto the earth, and sunlight being reflected off the moon’s surface. His theories would have been considered extremely radical as in attempting to answer these questions, he challenged accepted biblical explanations and concepts. The codex has changed names as it has passed through the hands of several owners. Da Vinci initially made it part of his bequest to his pupil Francesco Melzi. Sculptor Guglielmo della Porta then owned it before it became the property of painter Guiseppe Ghezzi in 1690. Thomas Coke bought it from Ghezzi in 1717 and when Coke became the Earl of Leicester, the codex was given his family name until 1980 when it was bought and renamed the Codex Hammer by American collector and businessman Armand Hammer. When Bill and Melinda Gates purchased it in 1994 they restored its former name of Leicester and this is the name we know it by today. Since purchasing it, they have exhibited it in a different city each year. The codex has so far visited Milan, Venice, Paris, New York, Seattle, Lisbon, Berlin, Tokyo, London and Sydney. Gates had the codex digitised and it was thereby made accessible to a wide audience via CD-ROM. A nifty piece of software called the ‘Codescope’ reverses da Vinci’s mirror writing into legible text and translates it from Italian into English so that users can move through the document at their own pace. One can’t help but think that da Vinci would have been impressed by the high-tech adaptation of his work and its absorption into the global digital cosmos. Further reading: Leonardo da Vinci: The Codex Leicester – Notebook of a genius, Powerhouse Publishing, rrp $32.95; You can see images from the codex at www.corbis.com; Some of da Vinci’s notebooks have been compiled in The Da Vinci Notebooks, published by Allen and Unwin, rrp $18.95.