Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) was an Italian Renaissance architect, musician, inventor, engineer, sculptor, and painter. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest painters of all time and perhaps the most diversely talented person ever to have lived. His notebooks contain diagrams, drawings, personal notes and observations, providing a unique insight into how he saw the world. Five of these incredible objects are in our collection.

Leonardo seems to have begun recording his thoughts in notebooks from the mid-1480s when he worked as a military and naval engineer for the Duke of Milan. None of Leonardo’s predecessors, contemporaries or successors used paper quite like he did — a single sheet contains an unpredictable pattern of ideas and inventions — the workings of both a designer and a scientist.

The Forster Codex (page 33 verso; volume III), Leonardo da Vinci, late 15th – early 16th century, Italy. Museum no. Forster MS.141. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The notebooks contain careful sketches and diagrams annotated with notes in 16th-century Italian ‘mirror-writing’, which reads from right to left. The mirror writing has caused much speculation. Was Leonardo trying to ensure that only he could decipher his notes? Or was it simply because he was left-handed and may have found it easier to write from right to left? Writing masters at the time would have made demonstrations of mirror-writing, and his letter-shapes are in fact quite ordinary: he used the kind of script that his father, a legal notary, would have used. It is possible to decipher Leonardo’s curious mirror-writing, once the eye has become accustomed to the style.

The Three Volumes of The Forster Codex, Leonardo da Vinci, late 15th – early 16th century, Italy. Museum no. Forster MS.141. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Leonardo probably worked on loose sheets of paper (bought at one of Milan's many stationers’ shops), which he carried about with him to record his observations. His papers were at some stage folded into booklets and later bound, possibly under the ownership the Spanish sculptor Pompeo Leoni (1533 – 1608). The five notebooks in the V&A's collection are bound into three codices (a bound book made up of several pages) called the Forster Codices, after John Forster who bequeathed them to the Museum in 1876. The codices are not bound in any logical order and only one, Codex Forster I.1, carries any indication of when it was made.

Codex Forster I.2 (Milan, about 1487 – 90)

The Forster Codex (page 123 verso; volume II), Leonardo da Vinci, late 15th – early 16th century, Italy. Museum no. Forster MS.141. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The earliest of the V&A’s notebooks was compiled around 1487 – 90 when Leonardo was a servant of the Sforza duke in Milan. The writing on a few sheets of this notebook extend beyond the inner margins, suggesting that Leonardo wrote them before the sheets were folded into the booklet as it survives today. It contains notes and diagrams for devices relating to hydraulic engineering and on the moving and raising of water. Leonardo was renowned for designing elaborate devices for entertaining guests at courts at noble houses, particularly water clocks and fountains. One design, for the French governor of Milan, was elaborately automated, with a mechanical man as a bell-ringer.

The Forster Codex (page 91 verso; volume II), Leonardo da Vinci, late 15th – early 16th century, Italy. Museum no. Forster MS.141. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Some of the ideas recorded here investigate perpetual motion — the concept of a hypothetical machine which, once activated, would run forever, like a wheel which never stops turning. Leonardo made several thorough studies of perpetual motion, though eventually rejected the theory.

Codex Forster III (Milan, about 1490 – 93)

The Forster Codex (page 23 recto; volume III), Leonardo da Vinci, late 15th – early 16th century, Italy. Museum no. Forster MS.141. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This is the most miscellaneous of the notebooks. Interspersed with notes on geometry, weights and hydraulics are sketches of a horse’s legs (perhaps connected with Leonardo’s work on an equestrian statue for the founder of the Sforza dynasty), drawings of hats and cloths that may have been ideas for costumes at balls, and an account of the anatomy of the human head. Leonardo made frequent dissection drawings of both humans and animals, contributing to anatomical and physiological discovery.

The Forster Codex (page 9 recto; volume III), Leonardo da Vinci, late 15th – early 16th century, Italy. Museum no. Forster MS.141. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Codex Forster II.1 (Milan, about 1495)

This notebook was compiled around 1495. It contains notes on the theory of proportions and mentions the work of Leonardo’s colleague in Milan, a famous mathematician named Luca Paccioli (died about 1514). It also contains a good deal of miscellaneous material: bells and a striking mechanism, a portrait of the General of the Franciscan Order, Francesco Nanni-Samson, and a passage discussing the postures of a group at a table, possibly relating to Leonardo’s work on the Last Supper fresco in Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, begun in about 1495.

The Forster Codex (page 10 verso; volume II), Leonardo da Vinci, late 15th – early 16th century, Italy. Museum no. Forster MS.141. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Codex Forster II.2 (Milan, 1495 – 97)
Made up between about 1495 and 1497, Codex Forster II2 has extensive notes on the theory of weights, traction, stresses and balances. It also contains an examination of a crossbow (a terrifying weapon outlawed on several occasions by the Pope), and a remark ridiculing those who thought perpetual motion was possible.

The Forster Codex (page 75 recto; volume II), Leonardo da Vinci, late 15th – early 16th century, Italy. Museum no. Forster MS.141. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Codex Forster I.1 (Florence, 1505)
A note in Leonardo’s own hand gives this notebook a title, ‘Libro titolato de strasformatione’, and dates it July 1505. This shows that it was begun when he was in Florence, just after he had undertaken to produce his famous ‘Battle of Anghiari’ mural in the Palazzo della Signoria, the centre of the city’s government. The notes consider the measurement of solid bodies and the problems of relating changes in shape to those of volume, a branch of mathematics known today as topology.

The Forster Codex (volume II), Leonardo da Vinci, late 15th – early 16th century, Italy. Museum no. Forster MS.141. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

These five notebooks, bound into three volumes, are in the collection of the National Art Library

One is currently on display in the Medieval & Renaissance galleries, Room 64