Leonardo da Vinci – UNESCO Heritage

Leonardo da Vinci – UNESCO Heritage

The mural „The Last Supper“ (L’Ultima Cena), created by Leonardo da Vinci as a secco painting, can still be found in the refectory of the Dominican Church of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan. Often called „The Supper“, it is one of the most famous paintings in the world and was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza (patron of Leonardo and Duke of Milan 1494-1499/1500) in 1494-1497. Leonardo da Vinci – UNESCO World Heritage Site: The church, the Dominican monastery, and Leonardo da Vinci’s painting „The Last Supper“ were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1980.

Leonardo da Vinci – The Last Supper, unchanged, provided by user Paris Orlando on Wikimedia Commons under the Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Leonardo’s beginnings

Unknown to many people, Leonardo da Vinci left behind over 13,000 sheets of notes that are virtually overloaded with scientific drawings. To biographer Michael White, Leonardo da Vinci is considered the first scientist.1

He has demonstrated in detail that Leonardo can be classified as a precursor to modern science and technology. There are many examples in White’s biography, which will be discussed below. To this day, Leonardo’s role as a scientist remains underappreciated. This may be due to the circumstances of his birth on 15. 4. 1452 in Anchiano near Vinci, about 80 km from Florence, for Leonardo da Vinci was an illegitimate child, born of the union between the notary Ser Pietro di Antonio da Vinci and the peasant Catarina from Vinci. Illegitimate children were stigmatized when talents were abundantly evident: After his elementary school career, Leonardo was also denied a university education. This did not stop his father from placing the young Leonardo as an apprentice with the Florentine painter Andrea del Verrocchio, who was respected at the time, at the age of about 17. Thus Leonardo’s career as a professional artist began.

Leonardo da Vinci – UNESCO Heritage, Leonardo da Vinci as an artist

Among his well-heeled patrons and other contemporaries, Leonardo was considered moody, vain, extremely unreliable, and unproductive. He was known for not finishing or canceling commissions. Although he painted the Mona Lisa – also known as La Gioconda – on commission from Francesco del Giocondo (the sitter’s husband), he never delivered it to his client. Leonardo da Vinci left behind a relatively small oeuvre of paintings compared to his impact as perhaps the most important artist of the modern era. Yet he continues to leave his mark on painting to this day. His works can be found in the world’s most important museums: Hermitage, St. Petersburg; Louvre, Paris; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Prado, Madrid; Uffizi, Florence.

Leonardo as a border crosser

The most important symbiosis between science and art can now be found in Leonardo’s Flood sheets, in which he graphically incorporates the findings of his flow research into illustrations of biblical catastrophes.

He rediscovered the organic nature of the fossils found in the Italian mountains, the location of which was justified in advance in time with the Flood. Leonardo rejected this idea because the fossils were found in life position. His findings about this were recorded in the Codex Leicester (also called Codex Hammer). Likewise, he rejected the young age of the earth calculated from the Bible based on his observation of differently sedimented sand layers in flowing water.

Leonardo had observed the flight of birds (this is found in the Codex Turin) and on the basis of his notes about it tried to design a flying body for man. In the other notes left behind, there were tracts on aerology, anatomy, biology, geology, hydrology, optics and mechanics, furthermore the laws of motion and levers, a writing on the construction of the body, on skeleton, musculature, heart and blood circulation as well as the human sexual organs. In the section on devices and machines, there are drawings of drills, burning mirrors, lathes, pressure pumps, parachutes, cranes, spinning machines, slingshots, plunging jacks, diving bells, and cloth shearing machines.

The maps created for military purposes for Cesare Borgia (1475-1507) are precursors of modern cartography. Leonardo’s anatomical as well as engineering drawings for war purposes, whose didactic explanations are written in mirror writing, are today considered pioneering for scientific demonstration drawing. Finally, Leonardo’s drawings in this field are unprecedented in their artistic intensity. Leonardo’s extensive estate of drawings, in contrast to his paintings, only developed its effect after his death.

Leonardo’s legacy as a scientist

Francesco Melzi (1491-1570) inherited Leonardo’s entire graphic and scientific estate by testamentary disposition of April 25, 1519. Leonardo had known Melzi since childhood and accompanied him to Rome. A copy of the Mona Lisa exhibited today in the Prado is attributed to Melzi. He also accompanied Leonardo to France in 1517, where he spent the last part of his life and Melzi was known to contemporaries as a painter whose work could not be distinguished from Leonardo’s.

The estate comprised about 13,000 pages, an order to be concluded on planning was not clearly recognizable. Leonardo had dealt with many areas of knowledge in the notebooks and had certainly planned to merge his illustrated notes into a kind of encyclopedia in due course, in which the above-mentioned areas were to be conveyed in illustrated form. He recorded his findings in notebooks or on notepads, which, however, remained at the stage of collecting material. Melzi’s first task was to organize this confusing legacy as far as possible. Thus, after tenacious attempts to organize these materials during the 1520s, Melzi finally arrived at his first publication, whose exact year of publication is not known: an incomplete volume on painting, which became available in academic circles under the name Trattato della Pittura (Treatise on Painting) with little circulation.

For this work, Melzi recurred to eighteen notebooks by Leonardo, written around 1490-1492 in fragmented conceptual form, to which several sections were added after 1500. Of the eighteen notebooks, ten are now considered lost. For the preliminary work on this volume, Melzi employed two scribes who worked for him full-time.

Leonardo da Vinci – UNESCO Heritage, Leonardo’s Codices

To go into the wide scattering of manuscripts left by Leonardo da Vinci, especially after Melzi’s death, would go beyond the scope of this essay, so the path of the Codex Leicester, summarized in 1506-1510 and written in mirror writing, will be traced here as an example and in the required brevity. Some of the documents left by Melzi to his heirs were sold as individual pieces. Thomas Coke, first Earl of Leicester, acquired the Codex in 1717, and in 1980 the industrialist and art collector Armand Hammer appropriated the work and renamed it Codex Hammer. In 1994 Bill Gates bought the work at auction for a price of 30.8 million US dollars and renamed it Codex Leicester again. It has since become the most expensive manuscript ever sold, and in 1999 and 2000 it was exhibited in Munich’s Haus der Kunst and Berlin’s Museum der Dinge.

Leonardo’s mirror script

Leonardo’s late writings are written by him as a left-handed person in a mirror script written from right to left and are difficult to read and understand because of their unusual syntax and orthography. A close examination of the errors reveals that the misspelled words sound phonologically correct. In neuropsychology, a correctly pronounced but misspelled word is called a nonword.2

Leonardo’s typical errors include the doubling of consonants, the substitution of letters, and the incorrect joining or separating of words. It is interesting to note that Leonardo repeated these errors when copying foreign texts. In particular, the division of a word into two non-words is an error typical of so-called dysgraphia, which was never taken into account in Leonardo’s corrections. From his writings it is evident that Leonardo was aware of his faulty spelling.

In an article for the journal Cognitive Neuropsychology, the Italian scientist Guiseppe Sartori, who teaches at the University of Padua, has substantiated the theory that Leonardo’s mirror writing, including its errors, could have been the late consequence of a left hemispheric stroke.3 In his neuropsychological analysis of Leonardo’s written language, he concludes that typical signs of a so-called surface dysgraphia are present. The cause could be a dysfunction of the left hemisphere of the brain, for example as a late consequence of an incisive neurological disorder. Contemporary sources reported paralysis of Leonardo’s right arm, suggesting a left hemispheric stroke.

1 A good introduction for interested readers without prior knowledge of Leonardo’s work as a scientist can be found in the biography: Michael White: Leonardo da Vinci. The First Scientist. 2004, Berlin. Original edition: Leonardo. The first Scientist. 2000, London.
2 Doubling of consonants: e.g. ccasa instead of casa (house). 
Substitution of letters: aldacia instead of audacia (audacity).
Incorrect joining or separating of words into non-words: a nchora s ipotrebbe instead of anchora si potrebbe (m an könnt enoch instead of man könnte noch).
3 Giuseppe Sartori: Leonardo da Vinci, Omo Sanza Lettere: A case of surface Dysgraphia? In: Cognitive Neuropsychology, 1987, 4(1), pp. 1-10, London.