Ten Key Facts About Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Atlanticus

That perhaps you do not know.

Codex Atlanticus, folio 1 r by Leonardo da VinciVeneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

1: It is the largest existing collection of drawings and written notes by Leonardo da Vinci

No other collection counts more original papers written by Leonardo than the Codex Atlanticus. It consists of 1119 papers, most of them drawn or written on both sides.

This is the first drawing of the Codex. On the left side there is a peculiar naval weapon: a platform equipped with sixteen cannons, that could cover with their shoots the whole surrounding area.

The right side features special devices to measure the distance covered: the two on the left measure miles, whereas the one on the right counts the number of steps.

Another very interesting detail to be noted: the left column is one of the rare cases where Leonardo writes left to right, whereas on the right column one can observe his typical mirror-writing.

Codex Atlanticus original binding (c. 1580-1600)Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

2: It was not assembled by Leonardo

At the end of the 16th century, Milanese sculptor Pompeo Leoni managed to retrieve a consistent number of Leonardo's papers from the heirs of Giovan Francesco Melzi, the faithful pupil whom the Master had entrusted all his writings in his will. Leoni began to create two huge volumes separating broadly the drawings dealing mainly with technical-scientific themes from the ones devoted to anatomy and artistic subjects. The former was to become the Codex Atlanticus while the latter is nowadays the famous Windsor collection.

The inscription on the ancient binding of the Codex says "Drawings of machines and of the arts, secrets and other things of Leonardo da Vinci collected by Pompeo Leoni".

Codex Atlanticus, folio 1006 v by Leonardo Da VinciVeneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

3: Why is it called Atlanticus?

The name Atlanticus has nothing to do with the Atlantic Ocean, or with some esotheric, mysterious content hidden in its pages. Indeed, it was named Atlanticus because of its size: when Leoni assembled it, in the late 16th century, he pasted Leonardo's papers on large sheets of the same format used for geographic Atlases.

This famous sheet with the map of Europe is particularly interesting, since it shows tangible signs of Pompeo Leoni's action and proceeding in sorting Leonardo's papers: the missing portion near the Brittany paeninsula is nowadays part of the Windsor collection (RL 12444 verso). On the verso of the little Windsor drawing one can see the missing part of Brittany, while on the recto there is a profile of a youth, a subject that was obviously more suitable for the second collection Leoni was assembling, the more "artistic" one.

This little sketch instead, might represent one of Leonardo's projects of flying machine.

4: It is kept in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, since 1637

In 1637, Milanese nobleman Marquis Galeazzo Arconati donated his impressive collection of artworks and manuscripts to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, founded 30 years earlier by the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Federico Borromeo. In just a few decades, the fame of the library had spread over the whole Europe both for the uniqueness of its collections, covering all the fields of knowledge, for its openness to dialogue with other cultures and for its innovative approach to the public: anyone who could read and write was granted access. 

Monument to Galeazzo Arconati (1637) by Lombard sculptorVeneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

Therefore, Marquis Arconati, who wanted to be sure that such a treasure would be preserved and be accessible to future generations, chose the Ambrosiana as perpetual keeper of the invaluable collection. Nowadays, at the entrance of the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana,visitors can still admire a commemorative plaque that celebrates this true act of maecenatism.

Codex Atlanticus, folio 199 v by Leonardo da VinciVeneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

Leonardo spent many years in Milan, first from 1482 to 1499 and then from 1506 to 1513. This plan of the city of Milan dates back to the master's second stay in the city and it traces perfectly the position of the ancient city gates, of the castle and of the watercourses.

In the lower part, there is a spectacular bird's eye view sketch of the city, where one can spot the cathedral (on the right) and the castle (on the left).

A detail of the city's gates, with measures indicated in feet. On top right the caption says: "locate the real centre of Milan".

Indeed, the square in the centre of the map corresponds to the area of the church of San Sepolcro, already existing at Leonardo's time. Right next to it, in the 17th century Cardinal Federico Borromeo would establish the Biblioteca Ambrosiana.

Codex Atlanticus, folio 26 v by Leonardo da VinciVeneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

5: It covers Leonardo da Vinci's whole career

Observing one of the Codex papers is like entering in Leonardo's studio and, somehow, in his mind. Basically his entire life as an artist and a scientist appears in this extraordinary collection, which covers a time frame that goes from 1478, when Leonardo was still working in his native Tuscany, to 1519, when he died in France.
The folios deal with various subjects ranging from mechanics to hydraulics, from mathematics to architecture, all the way up to curious inventions such as
parachutes, war machineries and hydraulic pumps.

This drawing dates to Leonardo's last years in Florence, before moving to Milan in 1482. It depicts a variety of hydraulic machines, some of them working thanks to huge "cochleas", i.e. the so called "Archimedes screw".

Codex Atlanticus, folio 1058 v by Leonardo da VinciVeneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

This folio, dating from the Master's first Stay in Milan, is covered with various sketches and notes on mechanical flight and aerodynamics.

This lively sketch shows a human figure in the act of operating a flying machine

However, the paper is mostly known for this little sketch of a man hanging from a device that really resembles modern parachutes.

Codex Atlanticus, folio 72 r by Leonardo da VinciVeneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

This is one of the most famous drawings of the Codex: it dates to 1503-04, when Leonardo was working in Florence. It shows a shower of projectiles launched from a series of mortars into a stronghold and a study of a horse for the mural painting of the Battle of Anghiari.

Portrait of Napoleon King of Italy (c. 1806 - 1808) by Andrea AppianiVeneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

6: It was brought to France by Napoleon 

In 1796 the Napoleonic troops conquered Milan and the precious collection was requisitioned and taken to Paris. It stayed in the Louvre for 17 years, until the Congress of Vienna decreed in 1815 that all works of art stolen by Bonaparte should be returned to their legitimate countries of origin.

Codex Atlanticus, folio 845 r by Leonardo Da VinciVeneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

7: It was mistaken for a chinese manuscript

This is perhaps one of the funniest adecdotes of all. The emissary nominated in 1815 by the House of Austria (which by then had gained again control over Lombardy) for the return of works of art from Paris, was unable to read the mirror-image handwriting of Leonardo (who normally wrote from right to left) and mistook the precious codex for a manuscript in Chinese. Luckily the Pope's emissary, famous Italian sculptor Antonio Canova, discovered the mistake and the Codex Atlanticus was returned to the Ambrosiana.

This is one of the most beautiful and evocative pages of the Codex. It shows Leonardo's studies on the flight of birds: he carefully recorded their movements according the wind speed and direction.

Atlantic Codex (Codex Atlanticus), f. 1082recto. (c. 1483-85) by Leonardo da VinciVeneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

8: It features Leonardo's "CV"

This a draft of a letter addressed to the Duke of Milan, Ludovico il Moro, drafted probably around 1483-85. Here Leonardo deliberately lists in nine points his abilities as a military engineer, describing far more concisely his skills as an artist and architect in the tenth point. As you might notice, this is not Leonardo's handwriting: being aware of his poor penmanship, he probably entrusted the task to a professional copyist. We do not know if the final version of the letter was ever delivered to Ludovico il Moro, what is certain, is that in the description of the war machines quoted by Leonardo, we can recognize some of the most famous military drawings that appear the Codex.

For example, in point four he states "I still have very convenient bombing methods that are easy to transport; they launch stones and similar such in a tempest full of smoke to frighten the enemy, causing great damage and confusion"

Codex Atlanticus, folio 33 r by Leonardo da VinciVeneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

This drawing has an extraordinary evocative power and illustrates perfectly point four of the letter. Indeed, it has always been one of the most celebrated of the Codex and was shown to travelling foreigners visiting the Ambrosiana since the 18th century, usually arousing much amazement.

Atlantic Codex (Codex Atlanticus), f. 207 recto. (c.1490) by Leonardo da VinciVeneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

9: It features also fables written by da Vinci

A lesser-known aspect of Leonardo's written production, is his ability to write short stories with a moral. Inspired by Florentine vernacular literary works, which Leonardo owned in his library, these short stories with a moral see as protagonists little plants, animals or natural elements, all described with lively witticism. The short fables are often illustrated with tiny sketches.

This detail of f. 207 recto shows two short fables: the one of the cedar tree and the one of the peach tree. On the right, there are sketches of the plants, each of them with the corresponding name above.

Atlantic Codex (Codex Atlanticus), f. 673 recto. (1518) by Leonardo da VinciVeneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

10: It contains Leonardo's last dated note

The sheet, folded in two parts and showing a dark preparation on the left side (typical of Leonardo's late papers), deals mainly with geometry problems. It also bears on the right side, near the right margin, a tiny plan of an ancient Florentine palace, which was located near Palazzo Vecchio. 

The Master's last known dated note is on top of this page. It says "On the 24th of June, the day of Saint John, in Amboise in the Palace of Cloux". He died on the 2nd of May, the following year.

Credits: Story

Collegio dei Dottori della Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

Direttore della Pinacoteca Ambrosiana:
Monsignor Alberto Rocca

Ufficio mostre ed eventi:
Elena Fontana
Michele Figlioli
Carolina Donzelli

Referenti Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana per il progetto Google Arts&Culture:
Michele Figlioli
Carolina Donzelli

Creazione stories e editing testi:
Carolina Donzelli con la collaborazione di Federica Lamberti

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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