The manuscript heritage of Leonardo is enormous. More than 4,000 folios, including those “isolated” and those collected in “codices” by Leonardo himself or by others in the form of a miscellaneous collection (Codex Atlanticus and Codex Trivulzianus both in Milan, A-M codices-collectively known as Paris Manuscripts- and Codex Ashburnham in Paris, Codex on the Flight of Birds in Turin, Codex Leicester in a private collection in USA, Codex Arundel and Codex Forster in London, Codex Windsor in Windsor, Codex Urbinas and Libro A in Vatican City, and the Codex Madrid in Madrid). This large spread of Leonardo’s manuscripts represents the fact that this heritage bequeathed by Leonardo to his student Francesco Melzi and later dispersed by his heirs has suffered significant losses and mutilations. In spite of everything, it is still so rich that its study constitutes a specialized branch of research, not only in the history of art, but in the history of science and culture in the broadest sense.
This manuscript heritage is presented as the documentation of an always new and critically unsatisfied experimental investigation on the entire breadth and complexity of the “natural” macrocosm: from pictorial art to sculpture, to architecture, to artifacts used for celebrations and ceremonies, from technology and military mechanics to cartography and topography, from mathematics and geometry to representative optics (perspective) and physiology, from applied mechanics to pure mechanics (the physical-dynamic theory of motion forces that, in Leonardo, broadened to encompass any natural phenomenon, from waters to winds, and even arose to cosmic and cosmogonic theory), from anatomy, which ranges from man to zoology and botany, to biology; and finally, in Leonardo’s last years, from geology to hydrology and aerology, with the visions and representations of the “Flood“, mainly oriented as representations of the future than a mythical past. In these documents we can observe how drawing adds and overcomes all the written annotations by Leonardo. Indeed, the meaning and value of drawing in Leonardo shows us the essence of the relationship between art and science in the sense that his total trust in experimental science and “mathematics” is reflected in the concept that he himself stated in one of his own annotations: “such true and real sciences belong to the mechanical kind, since they cannot reach perfection if it is not through manual activity”; and with the same concepts and terms he expresses his ideas about pictorial art: “and this in principle exists in the mind of its researcher and cannot reach perfection without the work of the hand”. Drawing then represents the essential conclusion and the visual communication of the mental processes, which is at the same time aroused by the “experiencing” of nature; it is the bivalent documentation of the experimental “process” and the phenomenon that has motivated it or, as Leonardo interpreted it, of the artistic creative “process” per se. At this point, any distinction, both in conception and form between “artistic” and “scientific” drawing loses value in the sense that any graphic manifestation by Leonardo combines both terms.
The only possible distinction is exclusively practical: it is well known, even thanks to Leonardo’s own notes, his habit of carrying notebooks in which he was sketching and writing observations on anything that aroused his unlimited curiosity and reflections. It is also true that, throughout his life and at least from the Milanese period beginning in 1482, Leonardo compiled larger notebooks (up to folio size) dedicated more organically to specific themes, reproducing almost literally (or rather broadening and deepening) some scattered notes: among the most characteristic in this sense is the small Codex on the Flight of Birds, in the Royal Library of Turin, dated to the first years of the 16th century, in which he reproduced observations and reflections included in the folios of Codex L (between the 15th and 16th centuries) and in the miscellaneous Codex Atlanticus. Also one of the two codices in Madrid (number 8,937) is made up of two fascicles: one (more organic and so perfectly arranged in the relationship between text and figures, that it suggests a preparation for printing) is dedicated to mechanics applied to the elaboration of machines (some of a universal nature for the transmission of movement, others for specific use, especially in textiles), and the other fascicle dedicated to the theory of mechanical physics, giving special importance to the composition and decomposition of forces. The drawings of applied mechanics are very similar to others found on “miscellaneous” folios at the beginning and end of the Codex Atlanticus. In the same way, in the other Codex Madrid (8,936), with a varied content, in the final fascicle dedicated to the problems of the welding of the equestrian monument of Francesco Sforza there’s a magnificent drawing “from life” representing shoulders and horse legs, very close in their conception to the celebrated folios of the Codex Windsor dedicated to external and internal anatomy and the movements of the horse. All of this is evidence of the material and empirical nature of the distinction that we make today between what we call here “codices” (“notebooks”) and scattered folios, and here are also included those that were collected, haphazardly, towards the end of the 16th century by the sculptor Pompeo Leoni in the Codex Atlanticus today in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan, which contains more than 1,600 folios with about 1,700 drawings. The other important lot of scattered folios is the one that is kept in the Royal Collection of Windsor, in which there are abundant pages dedicated to anatomy and those that we have already mentioned on the Flood.
Of course, there are many other drawings that refer exclusively to Leonardo’s activity as a painter and that are kept, apart from those of the Codex Windsor, in Italian drawing cabinets (especially in the Uffizi, in the Academy of Venice, in the Royal Library of Turin) and in other collections (especially in the Louvre), but at the same time we have many folios in which “ideas” and sketches coexist for executed or just projected paintings, “scientific” drawings, and others in which the mental link between “pictorial” activity and “knowledge” of nature is indivisible. At this level, a certain chronological distinction can be made in the manuscript heritage of Leonardo, also relying on the external circumstances of his life. In summary, in the first Florentine period, until the year 1481, the “artistic” character prevailed in these manuscripts, and in fact we have many loose folios related to the theme of the Virgin and Child and the Adoration of the Magi. In the first phase of the Milanese period, until the year 1499, parallel to Leonardo’s artistic activity, his multiple scientific and naturalist interests began to be specified and diversified, which often came to fruition in practical applications worthy of a great “machine-maker”, mostly due to the insistent requests of his patron Ludovico Sforza in all fields, from the military to the hydraulic and architectural: the first “codices”, A, B, C, H, I, M, Ashburnham, Forster date back to this period. Beginning in 1500, prevails the character of “naturalist philosopher” who investigates the macrocosm and the microcosm, although in the second Florentine period (1500-1506) it comes to coexist, together with the artistic character in the studies for Santa Ana with the Virgin and Child, the Battle of Anghiari and the Mona Lisa (many graphic studies refer to the first two works), the character of “engineer” and “geometer” working at the service of the Florentine Republic. In his old age, Leonardo, both in Rome and France, finds himself more and more immersed in the meditation and universal analysis of nature, even though his architectural interests were reborn while he was under the service of Francis I.
Going back to the theme of the Virgin with the Child, belonging to the first Florentine period, we find a decided evolution from the Madonna of the Carnation of the Alte Pinakothek of Munich to the composition of the Virgin of the Rocks. This evolution can be followed in a series of numerous studies and sketches that represent, in a great variety of hypotheses of structures and dynamism, the studies of the Madonna and Child with a Cat. Regarding this, we have two annotations by Leonardo: “… 1478 I began the two Virgin Marys” (this annotation on a drawing that is preserved in the Uffizi), an “almost finished Virgin Mary and another Virgin Mary” (these in the inventory of his study, when he was on his way to Milan). Generally excluded from these references is the Madonna of the Carnation of Munich, which was in the style of Verrocchio’s workshop and consequently dated between 1478-1480. The only one of these Virgins that has been identified and accepted almost unanimously by Leonardo’s hands corresponds to one of the two Virgins cited by him and that is now known as Madonna “Benois” today in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. It is an unfinished work that represents the Virgin offering a flower to the Child in the dim light of a room lit only by the cold light coming through a small window located far behind them. Under that apparent delicacy and the rare spatial indeterminacy (especially uncommon for a Florentine artist), we also note the appearance of light and structural conceptions that break the mold of Verrocchio‘s influence in the sense of deepening and producing an intimate connection between movement and sentimental relationship among the two figures, and translated in terms of composition and light. It is a “Nordic” light, cold but enveloping with tenderness, that undoubtedly served as a prototype for the many works on a similar subject that were produced by Leonardo’s Lombard pupils, from Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio to Cesare da Sesto and Giampietrino.
In its different graphic hypotheses is even more revolutionary the conception of the Madonna and Child with a Cat, perhaps the second Virgin to which Leonardo refers to, and whose painting has never been found: the presence of a “third element”, in this case the cat in addition to the Virgin and Child, is of fundamental importance for the purposes of the definitive dissolution of the graphic immobility of the Florentine tradition of the Virgin and Child theme (culminating in those years in the Virgins of Botticelli) and of the plastic-architectural tradition of the works by Piero della Francesca (who still made his influence felt in Perugino’s and in Raphael’s early works). The presence of this third element (the cat) opens up to the dynamics of space, the conciseness of the group with the initial two figures (the Virgin and the Child), and originates a whole series of balanced compensations which later will constitute the essence of the pyramidal and ellipse structures typical of the 16th century until reaching the “over imposed” system of the works by Michelangelo and the Mannerism, as well as introducing the counterpoints of psychological nature: the humanization of the divine by introducing the figure of the Child playing with the cat.
Indeed, in Leonardo’s last Florentine works before his departure to Milan, the sacred themes became the central point of reference (visual and symbolic) of a conceptual and spiritual vision that involved more aspects of the human and natural realities. Here are included two works that Leonardo left unfinished on the occasion of his departure to Milan in 1482: the Adoration of the Magi, today in the Uffizi, and Saint Jerome, currently in the Pinacoteca Vaticana. The great altarpiece of the Adoration was commissioned by the monks of San Donato di Scopeto in 1481. In the state in which Leonardo left this work, with a complete graphic description and with a partial monochrome indication of the masses, shadows and light, it’s more than enough to see it as a completely revolutionary work. In this painting Leonardo already began to propose and resolve, with awareness and determination, a large part of the artistic themes of the first decades of the 16th century: we just need to compare this work by a then 30 year old Leonardo, with a similar panel on the same subject by his contemporary Botticelli, at the Uffizi, only eight years older and also a fellow student in Verrocchio’s workshop.
In the Adoration of Leonardo all the rigidity posed by the graphic isolation of the figures and of the schematism of perspective have been decidedly abandoned and overcome by the relationship of plasticity and light treatment between the semicircular mass of worshipers and the sweetly emotional group of the Madonna and Child. This last is symbolically isolated by the treatment of the light, but it is reintegrated into the whole by the perfect “pyramidal” structure that has its base in the three Magi: the one kneeling on the right — towards which the Virgin and the Child turn their heads in order to counterbalance the whole—, and the Magi kneeling and prostrate on the left. Also at the two extremes, and reciprocally opposed, are two figures which presence would become the general rule in all pictorial compositions of the 16th century. From the large block of elements in the foreground, peremptorily closed by the human hemicycle over which stands, with an “eccentric” but brilliant placement, a leafy tree very similar to the portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci‘s juniper tree, the viewer’s gaze slides, without obstructing intermediate planes, to the images of the background, which are as revolutionary from a conceptual as well as from a pictorial point of view. The traditional parade of the procession of the Magi, decorative and representative of customs (see the famous Gozzoli fresco in the Medici-Riccardi Palace, only 20 years older) has here given way to a kind of free “spectacle” of nature and men, between rocks, battles on horseback, “postures” of naked figures… Codex A: “You will make the figures in the appropriate posture that serves to demonstrate what the figure carries in its soul”. There are also architectural ruins with complex intersections in perspective, which will be emulated and repeated in numerous 16th century paintings. This is already the visual manifestation of those principles of universality and omnipotence representative of the real world, which induced Leonardo to proclaim the “primacy” of painting (and therefore of the graphic representation) over all the other arts, or rather over “all human works”. In Codex A, which can be dated to 1492 a decade after the Adoration was painted, when Leonardo had already finished his Virgin of the Rocks, it is written: “But if we know that painting embraces and contains in itself all the things produced by nature and by the casual work of men and in short everything that can be covered with the eyes, it seems to me a mediocre master that who is only capable of making a single type of figure. Now, don’t you see how many and which acts are done only by men? Don’t you see how many different animals and trees, herbs, flowers, variety of mountainous and flat places, fountains, rivers, cities, public and private buildings, instruments suitable for man’s use, various habits and ornaments and devices there are? All these things must be used with the same technical skill and capacity by whoever wants to be considered a good painter”.