Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci

*There are links at the bottom of each page for the various subjects covered in Leonardo's Notebooks. Just click on "notebooks" or use the link above for a directory. 


Leonardo's notebooks are more accurately called: "Manuscripts" (A collection of pages) and their arrangement and order are almost nothing like they would have been originally. After Leo died he left most of his writings and notes to his assistant Melzi. However they were bounded, arranged, etc. were disordered. Leonardo would have attempted to arrange his works in some kind of order, possibly a significant order, but subsequent changing of hands and others attempts at re-ordering them has left them altered and dispersed around the world. Some were destroyed, some were cut and pasted, and it's also very likely that some are still un-discovered or un-disclosed. There could be some unknowingly sitting in a box in someone's basement or maybe there are even some in the possession of people who don't want to share them. Whatever the case may be we only have access to a small percentage of his original works. 


Why they are so difficult to organize? 

There is a complicated and story behind how each collection came to be in their present form and locations. It's easiest to imagine that all of da Vinci's pages of words and sketches were in one room or box about 500 years ago. At that time they would have been in some kind of order and arrangement that Leonardo himself organized. That doesn't mean that each and every page was in a particular order like an Encyclopedia or even chronological. They weren't a bunch of bounded books with each page being numbered and well- thought out - then placed on a shelf in order by theme or date. They weren't like journals where he started one day, then picked it back up for the next entry, and started again in another identical notebook once the previous one was filled. 

You have to imagine that at the end of his life he had created a collection of random and chaotic pages. Some were arranged and put into a specific order - by Leo himself. Most were just papers stacked together. It can be very difficult to decide on how to arrange papers that were written in more of a stream of consciousness with multiple subjects and themes being explored in not just a single notebook but within single pages and even paragraphs. 

  • Lets say he was trying to design one of his flying machines.
  • He would study the flights of birds and the anatomy of bats.
  • Then he would sketch out an idea for a wooden wing.
  • Then he would get an idea about how to build it.
  • Then how to pilot it.
  • Then about the possible dangers associated with flight.
  • Then he would get inspired by the birds iridescent feathers that changed colors in different angles and make him wonder how that was possible and how he could include it in a painting.


Within a single  'session' he could have multiple pages filled with not just writings and observations and thought but also with sketches. So how could he have, or anyone else, organize a single page that has multiple subjects included? Should that page be placed within "Flight" or "Sketches" or "Anatomy" or "Painting"? This is what makes it so difficult to organize Leonardo's works. 


Then in the next session he does the same - but uses a different notebook. Or maybe he is away from his studio and gets an idea and has to find something else to write on. Or maybe he is going back over some previous writings and then gets inspired about something totally different than what he is reading and doesn't have any new paper handy so he just starts writing on that page instead. 


Why are they so random and seemingly cryptic?  

If there is anything I have learned from my own experiences in writing and re-search is WRITE IT DOWN - you think you'll remember it but like waking up and trying to remember a dream - it starts to fade almost immediately and sometimes no matter how hard you try you won't be able to remember what had to have been the most important thought you have ever had!  After learning this very valuable lesson it leads to using a kind of personal short handed note taking. Its similar to how students can take notes during a lecture and then go back and remember what was being said without actually dictating everything that was said. If someone else who wasn't in that class or didn't know about what was being taught they would see their notes and not be able to understand what they really meant. This same thing happens even more so with ''self-notes' and is gets even more complicated and confusing because they need to be written down at any moment - not just during a class. Since they are just jotting down 'notes' of things to remember in the FUTURE, and aren't necessarily what are you are currently working on they are short and kind of cryptic.


Personal Short-Hand

Imagine if you wanted to write about your dream everyday and then research what it means and then try and paint it. The problem is that you have a very limited time before your dream is forgotten. So if you start to write down everything you can remember in complete detail - a few sentences in you will start to forget the rest of the dream. The only thing you can do is to write down notes, or key points that will enable you to remember the entire dream so that you can go back and fill in the details later. The interesting thing is that people don't just have "a dream" they have multiple dreams every night. So when you wake up it's not that you have to only remember one "movie" but a whole series. So what you do is write down the main things you are trying to remember before the memory of all the dreams fade. You really only have a couple to a few minutes, sometimes only seconds before it's gone. BUT if you write down a few "keywords" while you can still remember then you will be able to go back and remember what they meant. If you didn't take those notes then they would be forgotten. It's interesting that a couple words can make you remember a whole sequence or dream that you wouldn't be able to recall no matter how hard you tried - but with those little notes they come back. It's like how you totally forgot what your dream was then something randomly happens that day and it "all comes back to you" with a single reminder. Where was it? Why couldn't you remember it until you had a clue?

That's why you have to keep notes when you are trying to remember something. That's also why they can seem strange and random to other people because they are not a clear and accurate description - they are personal. This is also why there are a lot of strange and seemingly cryptic passages strewn throughout Leonardo's notebooks that don't seem to fit in. If, while writing this paragraph about Leonardo's notebooks I get an idea for another section of this time or something in my book I could write it in the margins - that is if I was writing something down on paper and not in a web editor. I could also type it and be like ___Derek remember to update x with blah blah and research more about Z____ and then just keep writing about what i was originally. That's how I write when it's not something that's going to be directly posted. That also makes for random and confusing files that are filled with multiple subjects that don't seem to belong to what the main subject was. 

SO when you want to go back and arrange those writings, and they are not on the computer so you can cut and paste and re-write them easily. How do you file the pages that have stuff about birds, painting, flight, and bones? (Will update this more later and make it clearer) -D