Codex on the Flight of Birds

The History of the Manuscript

Codice sul volo. Seconda di copertina. Custodia.Musei Reali

Like many of Leonardo’s other manuscripts and single sheets, the Codex on the Flight of Birds is believed to be miscellaneous. In other words, it is full of studies on various subjects that have been compiled together at different times.
For this reason, an anonymous cataloger, perhaps Pompeo Leoni, classified it as “birds and other things” in a note on the back cover, which can only be seen today using observation instruments

Codice sul volo. 2v.Musei Reali

However, when subjected to a more careful analysis, the manuscript appears to be much more organic than other codices, starting from its date of creation. This is now accepted as 1505 for the entire manuscript, apart from the red-stone sketches.

Codice sul volo. 2r.Musei Reali

The Manuscript

A careful analysis of the text, including the order of the writing, the organization of the topics, the numbering of the pages (by the author), and the analysis of the paper and graphic media, gives a glimpse of Leonardo’s thought process. More specifically, the topic of flight enables us to track the development of Leonardo's thoughts between the drafting of the text and the subdivision of the planned, but never executed, treatise on flight.

Codice sul volo. 18v.Musei Reali

The drafting of the precious manuscript took place in reverse, starting from the last folio.

Codice sul volo. 12r.Musei Reali

But its final format was standardized when Leonardo numbered it in the usual reading direction.

Codice sul volo. 6r.Musei Reali

As a result, the compilation of the codex seems to mirror the journey of Leonardo’s personal study experience, which started with an attempt to create a flying machine using flapping wings and later moved on to the careful observation of the flight of birds.

Codice sul volo. 11v.Musei Reali

The Recovered Folios

The main steps in the creation of the codex can be more or less retraced using the folios that were recovered after having been used previously.

Codice sul volo. 15v.Musei Reali

They contain sketches of naturalistic subjects…

Codice sul volo. 17v.Musei Reali

…the study of a human lower limb…

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…and a young face that Carlo Pedretti linked to Leonardo's Self-Portrait in 1975, noting a similarity.

Autoritratto (1517/1518) by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)Musei Reali

Self-Portrait, 1517-1518

Codice sul volo. 3r.Musei Reali

The Composition of the Codex

From a codicological point of view, the manuscript has survived just as Leonardo created it, with one folio potentially having been lost in the distant past. The folio numbers, handwritten by Leonardo, jump from 4 to 6. This may have simply been an oversight on the part of the author but critics still disagree.

Codice sul volo. 2r.Musei Reali

The Layout of the Codex

It is therefore believed that the current layout of the codex is the original one. Considering the two heavily annotated inside covers separately, c.1r appears as an ordered sequence of geometric figures and notes with an educational value. This is followed by observations on the “ventilation” (oscillation) of scales.

Codice sul volo. 3r.Musei Reali

In the following folios, Leonardo continues with the analysis of round scales, pulleys, and the behavior of weight in relation to oblique planes, including comments on traditional theories.

Codice sul volo. 4v.Musei Reali

In this section, focused on the themes of weight, gravity, balance, power, and resistance, c. 4v represents the transition from the purely theoretical structure to the employment of its principles to effectively sustain a bird, animal, and, consequently, machine in the air.

Codice sul volo. 8r.Musei Reali

The following folios of the codex contain analytical observations on flight, the behavior adopted by birds in different types of wind, and their flight paths…

…and on the way various parts of their body and wings are articulated and oriented when performing maneuvers or sustaining themselves in the air, both with and against the wind.

Codice sul volo. 9r.Musei Reali

Meanwhile, Leonardo assesses the risks of the flying machine falling and pays particular attention to an artificial wing which could respond to flight in a natural way.

Codice sul volo. 19r. Terza di copertina.Musei Reali

Myths and legends are formed from the most imaginative and creative parts of an artist's mind. It is from here that dreams of great ventures, the spirit of observation, and the ability to visualize and convey achievements are born. All of these aspects are at the core of scientific exploration and analysis, and Leonardo manages to achieve them on many fronts.

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