Towering across time as the creator of the Mona Lisa, forever famous as a sculptor and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci was one of the greatest minds of both the Italian Renaissance and Western civilization. His keen scientific imagination and, most of all, his aesthetic and creative genius have forever changed the course of our culture. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and recent in-depth biographies have stimulated renewed interest in da Vinci and his complex and inquiring intelligence.
He is a challenging figure easily defined only by his great works, but this revealing selection of sketches, diagrams, and writings from his notebooks is a beautiful and varied record of da Vinci’s theories and observations. They embrace not only art but also architecture, town planning, engineering, naval warfare, music, medicine, mathematics, science, and philosophy. The notebooks—a treasure trove of unparalleled ingenuity, curiosity, and creative energy—have inspired readers for centuries. The Da Vinci Notebooks is the perfect introduction to the mysteries of a master artist.
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On his own writings
Let no man who is not a Mathematician read the elements of my work.
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The Book of the science of Mechanics must precede the Book of useful inventions. – Have your books on anatomy bound!
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Seeing that I can find no subject specially useful or pleasing – since the men who have come before me have taken for their own every useful or necessary theme – I must do like one who, being poor, comes last to the fair, and can find no other way of providing himself than by taking all the things already seen by other buyers, and not taken but refused by reason of their lesser value. I, then, will load my humble pack with this despised and rejected merchandise, the refuse of so many buyers, and will go about to distribute it, not indeed in great cities, but in the poorer towns, taking such a price as the wares I offer may be worth.
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I know that many will call this useless work, and they will be those of whom Demetrius declared that he took no more account of the wind that came out their mouth in words, than of that they expelled from their lower parts: men who desire nothing but material riches and are absolutely devoid of that of wisdom, which is the food and the only true riches of the mind. For so much more worthy as the soul is than the body. And often, when I see one of these men take this work in his hand, I wonder that he does not put it to his nose, like a monkey, or ask me if it is something good to eat.
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And those men who are inventors and interpreters between Nature and Man, as compared with boasters and declaimers of the works of others, must be regarded and not otherwise esteemed than as the object in front of a mirror, when compared with its image seen in the mirror. For the first is something in itself, and the other nothingness – folks little indebted to Nature, since it is only by chance that they wear the human form and without it I might class them with the herds of beasts.CHAPTER 2
On painting in general
The sorest misfortune is when your views are in advance of your work.
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The first thing in painting is that the objects it represents should appear in relief, and that the grounds surrounding them at different distances shall appear within the vertical plane of the foreground of the picture by means of the 3 branches of Perspective, which are: the diminution in the distinctness of the forms of the objects; the diminution in their magnitude; and the diminution in their colour. And of these 3 classes of Perspective the first results from (the structure of) the eye, while the other two are caused by the atmosphere which intervenes between the eye and the objects seen by it. The second essential in painting is appropriate action and a due variety in the figures, so that the men may not all look like brothers, &c.
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The painter who draws merely by practice and by eye, without any reason, is like a mirror which copies everything placed in front of it without being conscious of their existence.
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Painting is concerned with all the 10 attributes of sight, which are: Darkness, Light, Solidity and Colour, Form and Position, Distance and Propinquity, Motion and Rest. This little work of mine will be a tissue [of the studies] of these attributes, reminding the painter of the rules and methods by which he should use his art to imitate all the works of Nature which adorn the world.
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If the eye is required to look at an object placed too near to it, it cannot judge of it well – as happens to a man who tries to see the tip of his nose. Hence, as a general rule, Nature teaches us that an object can never be seen perfectly unless the space between it and the eye is equal, at least, to the length of the face.
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Objects seen by one and the same eye appear sometimes large, and sometimes small.
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Experiment [showing] the dilatation and contraction of the pupil, from the motion of the sun and other luminaries. In proportion as the sky is darker the stars appear of larger size, and if you were to light up the medium these stars would look smaller; and this difference arises solely from the pupil which dilates and contracts with the amount of light in the medium which is interposed between the eye and the luminous body. Let the experiment be made, by placing a candle above your head at the same time that you look at a star; then gradually lower the candle till it is on a level with the ray that comes from the star to the eye, and then you will see the star diminish so much that you will almost lose sight of it.CHAPTER 3
The perspective of disappearance
When I was once in a place on the sea, at an equal distance from the shore and the mountains, the distance from the shore looked much greater than that from the mountains.
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The eye cannot take in a luminous angle which is too close to it.
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Of several bodies, all equally large and equally distant, that which is most brightly illuminated will appear to the eye nearest and largest.CHAPTER 4
On the theory of colours
An object represented in white and black will display stronger relief than in any other way; hence I would remind you O Painter! to dress your figures in the lightest colours you can, since, if you put them in dark colours, they will be in too slight relief and inconspicuous from a distance. And the reason is that the shadows of all objects are dark. And if you make a dress dark there is little variety in the lights and shadows, while in light colours there are many grades.
* * *
The colours of the rainbow are not produced by the sun, for they occur in many ways without the sunshine; as may be seen by holding a glass of water up to the eye; when, in the glass – where there are those minute bubbles always seen in coarse glass – each bubble, even though the sun does not fall on it, will produce on one side all the colours of the rainbow; as you may see by placing the glass between the day light and your eye in such a way as that it is close to the eye, while on one side the glass admits the [diffused] light of the atmosphere, and on the other side the shadow of the wall on one side of the window; either left or right, it matters not which. Then, by turning the glass round you will see these colours all round the bubbles in the glass &c. And the rest shall be said in its place.
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In the experiment just described, the eye would seem to have some share in the colours of the rainbow, since these bubbles in the glass do not display the colours except through the medium of the eye. But, if you place the glass full of water on the window sill, in such a position as that the outer side is exposed to the sun's rays, you will see the same colours produced in the spot of light thrown through the glass and upon the floor, in a dark place, below the window; and as the eye is not here concerned in it, we may evidently, and with certainty pronounce that the eye has no share in producing them.CHAPTER 5
There is another kind of perspective which I call Aerial Perspective, because by the atmosphere we are able to distinguish the variations in distance of different buildings, which appear placed on a single line; as, for instance, when we see several buildings beyond a wall, all of which, as they appear above the top of the wall, look of the same size, while you wish to represent them in a picture as more remote one than another and to give the effect of a somewhat dense atmosphere. You know that in an atmosphere of equal density the remotest objects seen through it, as mountains, in consequence of the great quantity of atmosphere between your eye and them – appear blue and almost of the same hue as the atmosphere itself when the sun is in the East. Hence you must make the nearest building above the wall of its real colour, but the more distant ones make less defined and bluer. Those you wish should look farthest away you must make proportionately bluer; thus, if one is to be five times as distant, make it five times bluer. And by this rule the buildings which above a [given] line appear of the same size, will plainly be distinguished as to which are the more remote and which larger than the others.CHAPTER 6
On the proportions and movements of the human figure
Every man, at three years old, is half the full height he will grow to at last.
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The foot is as much longer than the hand as the thickness of the arm at the wrist where it is thinnest seen facing.
Again, you will find that the foot is as much longer than the hand as the space between the inner angle of the little toe to the last projection of the big toe, if you measure along the length of the foot.
The palm of the hand without the fingers goes twice into the length of the foot without the toes.
If you hold your hand with the fingers straight out and close together you will find it to be of the same width as the widest part of the foot, that is where it is joined onto the toes.
And if you measure from the prominence of the inner ankle to the end of the great toe you will find this measure to be as long as the whole hand.
From the top angle of the foot to the insertion of the toes is equal to the hand from wrist joint to the tip of the thumb.
The smallest width of the hand is equal to the smallest width of the foot between its joint into the leg and the insertion of the toes.
The width of the heel at the lower part is equal to that of the arm where it joins the hand; and also to the leg where it is thinnest when viewed in front.
The length of the longest toe, from its first division from the great toe to its tip is the fourth of the foot from the centre of the ankle bone to the tip, and it is equal to the width of the mouth. The distance between the mouth and the chin is equal to that of the knuckles and of the three middle fingers and to the length of their first joints if the hand is spread, and equal to the distance from the joint of the thumb to the outset of the nails, that is the fourth part of the hand and of the face.
The space between the extreme poles inside and outside the foot called the ankle or ankle bone a b is equal to the space between the mouth and the inner corner of the eye.
* * *
The foot, from where it is attached to the leg, to the tip of the great toe is as long as the space between the upper part of the chin and the roots of the hair a b; and equal to five sixths of the face.
* * *
The length of the foot from the end of the toes to the heel goes twice into that from the heel to the knee, that is where the leg bone [fibula] joins the thigh bone [femur].
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In kneeling down a man will lose the fourth part of his height.
When a man kneels down with his hands folded on his breast the navel will mark half his height and likewise the points of the elbows.
Half the height of a man who sits – that is from the seat to the top of the head – will be where the arms fold below the breast, and below the shoulders. The seated portion – that is from the seat to the top of the head – will be more than half the man's [whole height] by the length of the scrotum.
* * *
A man when he lies down is reduced to one ninth of his height.
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The hand from the longest finger to the wrist joint goes 4 times from the tip of the longest finger to the shoulder joint.
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There is a great difference in the length between the joints in men and boys for, in man, from the top of the shoulder [by the neck] to the elbow, and from the elbow to the tip of the thumb and from one shoulder to the other, is in each instance two heads, while in a boy it is but one because Nature constructs in us the mass which is the home of the intellect, before forming that which contains the vital elements.
* * *
Which are the muscles which subdivide in old age or in youth, when becoming lean? Which are the parts of the limbs of the human frame where no amount of fat makes the flesh thicker, nor any degree of leanness ever diminishes it?
The thing sought for in this question will be found in all the external joints of the bones, as the shoulder, elbow, wrists, finger-joints, hips, knees, anklebone and toes and the like; all of which shall be told in its place. The greatest thickness acquired by any limb is at the part of the muscles which is farthest from its attachments.
Flesh never increases on those portions of the limb where the bones are near to the surface.
* * *
A sitting man cannot raise himself if that part of his body which is front of his axis [centre of gravity] does not weigh more than that which is behind that axis [or centre] without using his arms.
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In going up stairs, if you place your hands on your knees all the labour taken by the arms is removed from the sinews at the back of the knees.
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How a man proceeds to raise himself to his feet, when he is sitting on level ground.CHAPTER 7
Moral precepts for the student of painting
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Many are they who have a taste and love for drawing, but no talent; and this will be discernible in boys who are not diligent and never finish their drawings with shading.
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The youth should first learn perspective, then the proportions of objects. Then he may copy from some good master, to accustom himself to fine forms. Then from nature, to confirm by practice the rules he has learnt. Then see for a time the works of various masters. Then get the habit of putting his art into practice and work.
* * *
It is indispensable to a Painter who would be thoroughly familiar with the limbs in all the positions and actions of which they are capable, in the nude, to know the anatomy of the sinews, bones, muscles and tendons so that, in their various movements and exertions, he may know which nerve or muscle is the cause of each movement and show those only as prominent and thickened, and not the others all over [the limb], as many do who, to seem great draughtsmen, draw their nude figures looking like wood, devoid of grace; so that you would think you were looking at a sack of walnuts rather than the human form, or a bundle of radishes rather than the muscles of figures.
The painter who is familiar with the nature of the sinews, muscles, and tendons, will know very well, in giving movement to a limb, how many and which sinews cause it; and which muscle, by swelling, causes the contraction of that sinew; and which sinews, expanded into the thinnest cartilage, surround and support the said muscle. Thus he will variously and constantly demonstrate the different muscles by means of the various attitudes of his figures, and will not do, as many who, in a variety of movements, still display the very same things [modelling] in the arms, back, breast and legs. And these things are not to be regarded as minor faults.
* * *
I say that first you ought to learn the limbs and their mechanism, and having this knowledge, their actions should come next, according to the circumstances in which they occur in man. And thirdly to compose subjects, the studies for which should be taken from natural actions and made from time to time, as circumstances allow; and pay attention to them in the streets and piazze and fields, and note them down with a brief indication of the forms; thus for a head make an 'o', and for an arm a straight or a bent line, and the same for the legs and the body, and when you return home work out these notes in a complete form. The Adversary says that to acquire practice and do a great deal of work it is better that the first period of study should be employed in drawing various compositions done on paper or on walls by diverse masters, and that in this way practice is rapidly gained, and good methods; to which I reply that the method will be good, if it is based on works of good composition and by skilled masters. But since such masters are so rare that there are but few of them to be found, it is a surer way to go to natural objects, than to those which are imitated from nature with great deterioration, and so form bad methods; for he who can go to the fountain does not go to the water-jar.
* * *
We know for certain that sight is one of the most rapid actions we can perform. In an instant we see an infinite number of forms, still we only take in thoroughly one object at a time. Supposing that you, Reader, were to glance rapidly at the whole of this written page, you would instantly perceive that it was covered with various letters; but you could not, in the time, recognise what the letters were, nor what they were meant to tell. Hence you would need to see them word by word, line by line to be able to understand the letters. Again, if you wish to go to the top of a building you must go up step by step; otherwise it will be impossible that you should reach the top. Thus I say to you, whom nature prompts to pursue this art, if you wish to have a sound knowledge of the forms of objects begin with the details of them, and do not go on to the second step till you have the first well fixed in memory and in practice. And if you do otherwise you will throw away your time, or certainly greatly prolong your studies. And remember to acquire diligence rather than rapidity.
* * *
A painter needs such mathematics as belong to painting. And the absence of all companions who are alienated from his studies; his brain must be easily impressed by the variety of objects, which successively come before him, and also free from other cares. And if, when considering and defining one subject, a second subject intervenes – as happens when an object occupies the mind – then he must decide which of these cases is the more difficult to work out, and follow that up until it becomes quite clear, and then work out the explanation of the other. And above all he must keep his mind as clear as the surface of a mirror, which assumes colours as various as those of the different objects. And his companions should be like him as to their studies, and if such cannot be found he should keep his speculations to himself alone, so that at least he will find no more useful company than his own.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Da Vinci Notebooks"
Copyright © 2011 Emma Dickens.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The genius of da Vinci,
1 On his own writings,
2 On painting in general,
3 The perspective of disappearance,
4 On the theory of colours,
5 Aerial perspective,
6 On the proportions and movements of the human figure,
7 Moral precepts for the student of painting,
8 Judging a picture,
9 On light and shade,
11 Gestures and character,
12 The artist's materials,
13 Philosophy of the art of painting,
14 Allegorical representations,
15 Mottoes and emblems,
16 Notes on sculpture,
17 Observations on architecture,
19 Man compared with animals,
20 Physiology and medicine,
21 On astronomy,
23 Notes on the natural world,
24 Machines and warfare,
25 Number tricks,
26 Philosophical maxims,
27 Moral sayings,
29 Studies on the life and habits of animals,
31 Jests and tales,