Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) seems to have begun recording his thoughts in notebooks from the mid-1480s. When he died at Amboise in 1519, he left all his drawings, papers and notebooks to his assistant, Francesco Melzi (1491/3–about 1570), who took them back to Milan.
Melzi used the notebooks and papers to produce the Trattato Della Pittura, that records Leonardo’s ideas on painting, and which survives as a manuscript in the Vatican library (Codex Urbinas). This work refers to some 18 manuscripts and notebooks, of which only six can be identified today. Melzi certainly had more manuscripts than survive today, and there are references to some owned by other 16th-century collectors but now lost.
Leonardo’s papers were seen in Melzi’s care by Giorgio Vasari and Giovanni Lomazzo , both of them painters and writers on art. However a few manuscripts were owned by others, most notably that bought by Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester from an owner in Rome in about 1717 (hence the name by which it was known until 1980, the Codex Leicester) – later owners were Armand Hammer (from 1980) and Bill Gates (from 1994).
After Melzi’s death in about 1570, his heirs allowed Leonardo’s papers to be split up. The Spanish sculptor Pompeo Leoni (1533–1608) made an effort to acquire as many as he could, probably between 1582 when he established himself in Milan and 1590 when he returned to Madrid, though he was also in Italy in 1594. Leoni’s large collection was dispersed in Spain after his death. The drawings currently held in the Royal Library at Windsor came from a volume owned by Leoni that was acquired, probably in Spain, by Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel (1585–1646). Other Leonardo manuscripts owned by Arundel remained in his collection and that of his heirs until 1831 when they entered the British Museum Library as the Codex Arundel. A series of albums and notebooks owned by Pompeo Leoni came into the hands of Count Galeazzo Arconati, who presented twelve of them to the Ambrosiana library in Milan in 1636; among them were the Codex Atlanticus (so-called on account of its enormous size). However, Leonardo manuscripts in the Ambrosiana were seized by French republican troops on Napoleon’s orders and sent to Paris in 1796. Only the Codex Atlanticus was eventually returned to Milan, so that a series of notebooks (today numbered A – M) remains in the Institut de France to this day.
The V&A has five of Leonardo's notebooks in its collections. Known as the Codex Forster, the notebooks were owned by John Forster and bequeathed by him to the V&A in 1876.
One volume of the notebooks is on display in Gallery 64 (Medieval & Renaissance).