The Codex Arundel: mapping the mind of a polymath

The contents of the Codex Arundel are rich and diverse. They include records of Leonardo's professional preoccupations alongside his personal interests in all manner of subjects.

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, ff.174v-175r (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

Mathematics, geometry, astronomy, cosmology, mechanics, nature, anatomy and architecture are all represented.

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, f.129v (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

Leonardo’s handwriting

It’s a myth that Leonardo used mirror writing to keep his notes secret, but this is not the case. As he was left handed, Leonardo found it easier to write from right to left. By doing so he avoided smudging the ink with his hand. 

Animation of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘mirror writing’The British Library

This animation shows how the page would have been filled by Leonardo's mirror writing.

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, ff.134v-135r (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

Folded sheets

Leonardo frequently folded the sheets of his notebook once or twice, creating two or four sections per page. On some sheets, the folds are easily visible. In order to prevent smudging his work as he went, the left-handed Leonardo started in the top right corner of a sheet, and worked his way across the page from right to left.

How Leonardo da Vinci folded his pagesThe British Library

An animation demonstrating the way in which Leonard da Vinci folded his sheets of paper which are now known as Codex Arundel.

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, f.156r (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

Inquisitive mind

Above all else, Leonardo’s work is characterised by compulsive curiosity. In poetic musings he imagines being outside a mysterious cavern. He is assailed by two contrary emotions: “fear and desire: fear of the threatening dark cavern, desire to see whether there were any marvellous thing within it”.

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, ff.134v-135r (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

‘Brainstorming’ sheets

Some of the folded sheets can be called ‘brainstorming’ sheets. In this example, which covers a number of themes that preoccupied him all his life, Leonardo folded the sheet twice to make four smaller sheets, using each sheet to work out his ideas. This working process was typical for Leonardo.

As the biographer Giorgio Vasari wrote: “Truly marvellous and celestial was Leonardo … in learning and in the rudiments of letters he would have made great proficience, if he had not been so variable and unstable, for he set himself to learn many things, and then, after having begun them, abandoned them.”

Pulleys and mechanics

Leonardo’s preoccupation with mechanics is well represented in the Codex Arundel. …

Waves

This sheet reveals the different techniques he used to represent waves and convey their structure and movement. The central, detailed profile view of the course of a wave contrasts with the quick sketch (top right) of a large wave about to break, its depth rendered by darker pen strokes.

In the lower section of the sheet there is a fluid line drawing of breaking waves and a geometrical diagram of surface wave patterns.

Bird flight

The flight of birds was a major preoccupation of Leonardo’s, to the extent that he dedicated a whole notebook to the subject, known as the Codex of the Flight of Birds (or Codex Sul Volo). Leonardo’s observations frequently show birds in flight.

Leonardo da Vinci, Manuscript B f 074vMuseo Galileo - Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza

Simple observations such as this led to the inventions of complex flying machines, which Leonardo built and tested without success on the hills surrounding Florence.

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, ff.134v-135r (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

Leonardo crossed these notes out, which suggests that he copied and further developed them elsewhere.

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, f.036r (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

The study of the animal world

This sheet shows a beautiful drawing of an insect amid notes and drawings on other themes. Here again, Leonardo shows a preoccupation with flight in the way in which he has carefully drawn the insect’s wings.

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