Leonardo da Vinci did not finish many paintings, but he filled thousands of notebook pages with quick sketches, designs, plans, maps, and detailed anatomical drawings throughout his life. Often these pages contained a scattering of sketches on numerous unrelated projects, seemingly the contents of Leonardo’s thoughts poured onto the page. This sheet includes studies for a child with a lamb (on the recto, or front) and studies of machinery (on the verso, or back, or reverse), among other sketches. With limited formal schooling, Leonardo learned through close observation and an insatiable curiosity about how things worked.
Between 1503 and 1506, Leonardo used black chalk, pen and ink to draw a child and a lamb multiple times, trying out different poses for the figures. He began with many quick sketches in chalk. He then went over some of these in pen and ink, firming up his ideas, as at upper right. The most evolved study is that at center left, in which the child leans back on the lamb, the group rendered more completely in space. Sheets of drawings such as this allowed Renaissance artists to experiment with complex compositions, poses, gestures, and expressions before committing them to wood panel or canvas with paint. As such, drawings were rarely meant to be viewed as finished objects in their own right.
Leonardo probably made the drawing in preparation for a painting of the Virgin and Child with Saint John, now lost but known through copies. He inscribed some unrelated notes concerning a treatise on geometry at the top of the sheet in his characteristic backwards writing, legible only with the help of a mirror. Some speculated that this right-to-left writing was meant to conceal his ideas, but this is not in fact any kind of da Vinci code. Because he was left-handed, writing in the opposite direction saved Leonardo from smearing ink as his hand moved across the paper. Mirror-writing such as this is often found in left-handed children before they are “corrected.”
Leonardo was also an accomplished inventor and engineer, with a detailed knowledge of cranes, levers, pulleys, and gears, and sketches of machinery and parts are seen on the verso side of this sheet. A design for a press or early laminating machine, the adjacent notes concern the wear and tear on the machine, particularly the axel, and a possible solution: a replaceable axel. Some of Leonardo’s more ambitious conceptions, including early thinking about the possibility of tanks, helicopters, submarines, and other military weapons, were never realized in his time.
Explore annotated views of the front and back of this drawing