The Renaissance: Leonardo da Vinci and his Notebooks

Moving on from the folk knowledge and symbolism of the medieval age, came the era of enlightenment, the Renaissance. From the French “rebirth”, the Renaissance was a cultural movement across Europe that completely redefined the world, not only in the arts, but in knowledge, understanding, science and all aspects of culture. Spanning roughly from the 13th century through to the 17th century, when it came to an end due to the Reformation, this cultural phenomenon saw a great shift from the focus on spirituality and otherworldly entities to an interest in real people, everyday life and the world around us. People became fascinated with the smallest details; fashion, flowers, architecture, and a strong desire to understand how all things worked. It was an age of invention, understanding, technological advancement and wondrous artwork. The observed realities of life merged with religious icons and ancient mythologies, depicted in works of art by the most famous of artists, the Old Masters; Raphael, Botticelli, Michelangelo and, of course, Leonardo da Vinci, among so many others that have come to influence all art since.

Da Vinci's studies of cats

Da Vinci’s studies of cats

Da Vinci, the true Renaissance man, dabbled in all aspects of life and knowledge: painting, drawing, science, anatomy, mathematics, engineering and invention to name but a few. Inspired by all things in the world around him, Leonardo worked tirelessly to understand everything and observe all areas of life. His notebooks are a triumph of art, observation and scientific knowledge, displaying the depth of his intellect and artistic ability. From studies of cats to complex diagrams of muscles and vascular systems, da Vinci explored every aspect of the world he could get his hands (and eyes) on. Among the first to study dissected human corpses, he made detailed studies of human anatomy, the likes of which were never seen before and, unfortunately, would not be seen until long after his death as none of his drawings were published in his lifetime. Had they, great advances in the understanding of human anatomy and medicine would surely have occurred at this time.

“When Vasari and Sigmund Freud wrote about Leonardo, they wondered why he failed to finish paintings. The answer is that he was less interested in commissioned works than in his own quest to understand nature and humanity. It’s in his manuscripts – more like scientific notes than the drawings of other artists – that you find the record of this.”

Jones, Jonathan, “The real Da Vinci code”, The Guardian, August 2006

Da Vinci, The cardiovascular system and principle organs of a woman, c.1509-10, Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Da Vinci, The cardiovascular system and principle organs of a woman, c.1509-10, Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Da Vinci’s curiosity is demonstrated in the vast array of topics and themes found in his notebooks, the most famous collection being the Royal Collection, only recently on public exhibition outside of Windsor Castle. He was one of the first to question the Biblical account of the Flood, a risky business at a time when the Church held all the power. He studied the fossils of sea creatures found on mountaintops and concluded that they could not have been deposited in a forty day flood, then looked into river valleys and calculated that it would have taken great spans of time for them to be eroded. (Richter, Jean Paul, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Dover Publications, 1970 – also online)

Da Vinci: The anatomy of a bear’s toe, c. 1485-90, Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. A beautiful example of the breadth of Leonardo's exploration of the world.

Da Vinci: The anatomy of a bear’s toe, c. 1485-90, Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
A beautiful example of the breadth of Leonardo’s exploration of the world.

An online viewer of the Codex Arundel, one of Leonardo’s notebooks from 1478-1518, which the artist himself describes as “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.” The text is written in his typical left-handed mirror-writing and covers a broad range of topics in science and art, along with various drawings and diagrams.

“Although many other artists, inventors and scientists have brainstormed on paper, none of Leonardo’s predecessors, contemporaries or successors used paper quite like he did. The intensity, variety and unpredictability of what happens on a single sheet are unparalleled.

Behind the diversity are a series of unifying themes in Leonardo’s vision of how the world works. The dominant theme is the mathematical operation of all the powers of nature.

Every small part of nature mirrors the action of the whole, and the human body is specifically a ‘lesser world’ – lesser in scale but not in wonder and complexity. Everything is related to everything else. Leonardo saw connections where we see only differences.”

(Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment, Design”, V&A website)

Leonardo da Vinci was determined to explore all that he could see, believing that sight was the most important sense we have, and that all things could be explained by observational study. His notebooks provide evidence to the truth of this belief, as many of his studies in anatomy are still correct when compared to today’s knowledge. This is ridiculously impressive when you think about the fact that Leo was alive six centuries ago. That’s a long time for his research to hold up. His notebooks are fascinating works of art and bear the essence of the Renaissance spirit: a quest for knowledge, the pursuit of realism and a wonder for the smallest details of the world.


About startlediguana

Miscellaneous art history blog made for a module at uni. The likelihood of future posts is slim at best, like sliced cheese.
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