THE Italian Art Congress in closing its annual meeting, held at Parma in 1871, which had been placed, to parody a formula of the Roman Church, under the patronage of Correggio, determined to hold its next session at Milan, and decreed, beforehand, the honors of the occasion “to that universal genius which was Leonardo da Vinci.” The Italian government interested itself in the proposed meeting, and the Minister of Public Instruction, Signore Cesare Correnti, suggested that the best way to signalize the occasion would be to publish an editio princeps of Leonardo’s works. But, greatly as this is to be desired, the task presents so many difficulties that it was deemed not best to attempt it; and it was finally concluded to publish a volume of selections from that great treasure of the Ambrosian Library, II Codice Atlantico, a name which it derives from its size, it being the largest single collection of sketches and manuscript notes by Leonardo that exists. Of thirteen volumes, all of the same general character, but of different sizes, which were stolen from the library in 1796, by the French, or rather, let us say, by Napoleon, and which it was promised by the treaty of 1815 should be returned, this is the only one that was so returned, and the whereabouts of the others is only to be guessed at, though it is generally admitted that most of them arc in Paris. This is the famous volume of which everybody at all interested in literature or science has at least heard, if he has not been so fortunate as to see it, and it was the study of such extracts from it as had been published from time to time, notably by Venturi, in 1797, that moved the discreet and learned Hallam to that eulogy on Leonardo which from almost any pen but his would have been set down as extravagant. “ These fragments,” says the historian of the literature of Europe, “are, according to our common estimate of the age in which he lived, more like revelations of physical truths vouchsafed to a single mind than the superstructure of its reasoning upon any established basis. . . . If any doubt could be harbored, not as to the right of Leonardo da Vinci to stand as the first name of the fifteenth century, which is beyond all doubt, but as to his originality in so many discoveries, which, probably, no one man, especially in such circumstances, has ever made, it must be by an hypothesis, not very untenable, that some parts of physical science had already attained a height which mere books do not record.”
It having been decided to publish these selections, the Minister of Public Instruction appointed a commission of seven literary and scientific men, by whose joint labors they should be edited and illustrated with whatever might be necessary to give them completeness. Accordingly, under the modest title of Specimens of the Works of Leonardo da Vinci,—Saggio delle Opere di Leonardo da Vinci, — the commission has issued, under the editorship of Signor Carlo Belgiojoso, the President of the Academy of Fine Arts in Milan, a random selection of twenty-four drawings from the Codice Atlantico reproduced in fac-simile by photolithography. The portion of the volume containing the text is a sumptuous specimen of printing in the grand Italian manner, — “a river of text in a meadow of margin,” — large type, black ink, and white strong paper such as we.knew in the days before tinted-and-satin-smooth paper was the tasteless, effeminate mode. As for the plates, we are sorry to be obliged to say that they do no credit to Signor Angelo della Croce, who executed them, and whose process was chosen by the commission for this work as the best that Italy can produce. Italy is far behind Germany, France, and England in book illustrations, and especially in illustrations that depend upon the new processes of reproduction, and photolithography in particular. We wish these sketches could have been submitted to the process of Heliotypy ; we are sure that a far better result might have been looked for. We must say a word as to the text of the present publication. It will be found of noticeable value and interest, and it is a pity it could not be put into a more convenient and accessible form. Leonardo’s genius is exciting more and more interest, and yet the material for the study of him is scanty, the essays in the present volume being by far the most important contribution that has been made to our knowledge of facts, — not as much the facts of his life as those of his intellectual history. The text of the present volume contains, first, a brief but valuable Biographical Sketch of Leonardo, by Cav. G. Mongeri; an Essay on Leonardo as Man of Letters and Man of Science, by Cav. Gilberto Govi, and another by Cav. Camillo Boito on Leonardo as Painter and Sculptor, — two essays that do honor to Italian scholarship, and place us all under great obligation.
The sketches reproduced are mostly of mechanical contrivances, with explanations, more or less full, in Leonardo’s own handwriting. To each plate is prefixed a brief but clear explanation by Signor G. Colombo, Professor of Industrial Mechanics, and a member of the Royal Literary and Scientific Society of Lombardy, who has also translated on a page following each sheet the remarks appended by Leonardo to his drawings. “Translated,”is the best word perhaps to apply to the task of making readable to us these notes, always terse even when most ample, and in a handwriting that runs from right to left, and which can only be read—and then only by an adept — by reversing it before a mirror, or by holding Up the paper to light. Nor is this the only difficulty. Leonardo employed so many abbreviations and shorthand devices, omitted so many words, and erased or altered so many, that it could have been no easy matter to find out his meaning, nor does the editor pretend that in all cases he has done so. What were Leonardo’s reasons for adopting this method of recording his notes — whether, as has been asserted, he was left-handed, or was merely whimsical, or wished to conceal himself, or enjoyed being superfluously dexterous — we cannot know ; but it is evident from the very first plate in this volume that he could write in the ordinary way when he would. This first plate is the fac-simile of his well-known letter to the Duke of Milan, Lodovico Sforza, in which he offers his services to the Duke, and recites his qualifications for employment. We shall not undertake to give an account in detail of all the plates in this volume ; We can only refer to the more important ones, wishing that such a welcome may be given to this selection as will encourage the publication of more and more specimens, until the whole Codex Atlanticus at least shall have been put into the hands of students.
Leonardo seems to have given the first impulse to the enterprising spirit which pushed Milan to connect herself by canals, not only with the Po, but with the Italian lakes. Not only did he build, among others, the famous Martesana Canal, but he is credited by many with the invention of the canal-lock, and of other parts of the apparatus by which canals are managed. Be this as it may, we have here three drawings relating to the subject of canals. The first shows a system of dams crossing a stream in diagonal, each having a lock at the end down stream, where there is, of course, the least movement. This is a good specimen of these sketches at their best, clear and firm, without a stroke too little or too much. The second drawing is of a machine by which the operations of digging out a canal and building its banks may be performed at the same time. The third illustrates the way in which water can be drawn from a canal for irrigation, when the water is at different levels. A curious speculation, further on, as to the feasibility of reducing the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the ocean to the same level, is not made out as clearly as we could wish, nor helped much by the bird’s-eye view of the region that accompanies it. But it is, at least, evident that Leonardo had a notion in his own mind, and perhaps a study of the subject by an engineer would make it out more clearly than we can do. Leonardo’s head was full of ingenious ideas, and he knew it, yet was very far from being conceited about it. It is interesting to see how, in several cases, when he has propounded a theory to himself, and brooded over it, and experimented with it, he coldly draws his pen through the original statement, and writes, “ Leave this. There is nothing in it.”
And we see here, beside, his way of working. In one plate, particularly, we have the rough sketch with all its corrections, erasures, blottings, and seeming aimless pushings about of the pen, and alongside of it, on the same paper, the finished drawing, clean, complete, and showing, by comparison with the rude sketch, how clear Leonardo’s mind was from the first as to what he was driving at. The drawing we refer to is of a balista made on the general principle of a revolver. Four great crossbows serve as the spokes to a large wheel. A group of men make this wheel revolve by treading the steps that are fastened to its broad periphery. As they turn the wheel, its axis, turning with it, winds up four cords attached to the strings of the fore crossbows. As the opening in the circumference of the wheel opposite each bow comes in line with the object aimed at, a boy, seated on the axle, slips an arrow into the bow, releases the cord, and repeats this operation as each bow comes up in turn with the revolutions of the wheel. The men who tread the wheel are protected from the enemy’s fire by a tilting screen of wood, which receives all missiles at such an angle as to break their force. No doubt this machine will look impracticable enough to the eye of a practised engineer, but to the layman it is ingeniously murderous, and whether good for anything or not, it is drawn in a very interesting way. The youngster in the middle, who is the most active agent in the mischief, is a handsome child of the type of the early Florentine painters, and it is worth noticing that he appears in embryo plainly enough in the rude first sketch. These balistas evidently occupied Leonardo’s thoughts very seriously for a time, and it would seem as if he did not recognize the fact that in his age their occupation was already gone. By the end of the fifteenth century gunpowder had already thrown the mediæval engines of war, balistas, battering-rams, scaling-ladders, and the rest, into the second rank as means of defence, and the city-walls themselves were tumbling down before the rams’ horns filled with powder. Even Dürer, who, in some respects, seems the parody of Leonardo in the versatility of his powers and in the way in which he sometimes trifled with them, and who was only nineteen years younger than his great contemporary, wasted no time, in his book on Fortification, over balistas and crossbows, though perhaps it will be thought a proof of as little sagacity that he gave so much study to the planning of equally useless walls and bastions. But Dürer believed in cannon, as not only his book shows, but his etching on iron called The Great Cannon, made in 1515. So far as we know, all Leonardo’s speculations on the conduct of war were purely mediæval; they did nothing to advance the revolution brought on by the invention of gunpowder. One of these drawings shows a fanciful, almost comical, device for pushing the ladders of a besieging party from off the walls of a town. It is not actually impracticable, but looks easier on the paper than we suspect it would be found in execution. Here Leonardo is trying his hand at solving a problem that had puzzled a good many ingenious heads in the Middle Ages as well as in his own time. Viollet-le-Duc says, “ The books of the Middle Ages On the military art are filled with models of engines of war, and particularly with various inventions for ladders, which it would be impossible to make of practical use’’; and perhaps the best thing to be said of this particular drawing of Leonardo’s is, that it is an impossible device for knocking down an impossible ladder. If we find these war-engines extremely interesting and ingenious in the Album of Villard de Honnecourt, particularly when his rude sketches are interpreted and put into an orderly form by Viollet-le-Duc, it must be because they seem more ingenious than we could have expected to find in so rude a time ; and it is because Leonardo’s general cleverness would justify us in looking for something more in accord with the growing science of his time that we study his designs for war-engines with some impatience.
Leonardo is to be praised, however, for this, that, as a rule, his mechanic inventions and studies — at least such of them as we see in this book — are directed to the immediate needs of his country and his time. Here are clear, decisive drawings for machines to cut files, to shear the nap of cloth, to saw marble, to twist silk; and here must be one of the first lamps, properly so called, that was ever devised. It has a very modern look, and might easily be taken for a carcel lamp. Of its internal machinery, if it be supposed to have any, we do not read anything in Leonardo’s description, and it may be merely a wick set in a cup of oil; but what makes it look singular is, that the globe of glass surrounding the wick is filled with water, —a simple expedient for increasing the light. Singularly enough, this device has just been introduced into our cities, where it is employed with an ingenious modification to light shop-windows where goods are displayed. A hemispherical bowl of glass is filled with water, and the gas-jet being arranged over it horizontally, a diffused but brilliant light is thrown over the goods below. Doubtless, Leonardo suffered, as a student, for the want of a brilliant and equable light at night. Italy has had to wait all these centuries for the American petroleum, which she doubtless thinks the best result of her great son’s discovery, to give her the much-desired comfort. Excellent candles are made in Italy, none better anywhere ; but they are only for the rich, and, picturesque as the brass lamps are, they give a miserable light. The delight of the Italians, especially of the poorer sort in the petroleum oil, which makes their rooms more brilliant than the king’s palace could have been but a few years ago, is expressed with childish profusion and volubility; and the very look of the placards that offer “ Petrolio d’ America ” for sale is a sort of mute “ Hurrah.” Here, then, we see Leonardo trying, like a Renaissance Franklin, to supply practical needs in practical ways. Quite as impracticable looking, on the other hand, as Franklin’s experiments with electricity must have seemed in the beginning, are these sheets from Leonardo’s sketch-book filled with schemes for flying-machines, one page being taken up with a careful study of the means of utilizing for his purpose the structure of the wing of a bird.
We have said enough, we think, to indicate to our readers the general character of these notes and sketches by Leonardo. They are the speculations and studies of an ingenious mind curious about many things, and with a superfluous activity that sought satisfaction in a hundred channels. Work was Leonardo’s play, and he found rest for his mind in unceasing and unwearied study, as Dürer found, rest for his in unwearied and unceasing labor of the hands. But, while we welcome even this partial publication of that great collection of his studies which has been the subject of such enthusiastic praise, not only from men of the eminence of Henry Hallam and Sir William Hunter, but from all the students of art and science who have made even a superficial acquaintance with it, we submit whether the time has not come, seeing the means we have at our disposal, to publish the whole of the Codex Atlanticus at least, and of whatever other collections can be discovered of Leonardo’s sketches, in order that we may know exactly what services he has rendered to mankind in the way of original investigation. Did he really render any such services, or was he only a busy and ingenious speculator, with little true mechanic genius, and with little capacity for scientific investigation ; — a poet, before all, playing with science as Bacon and Goethe and Oken played with it, catching glimpses of scientific truth, as by a sort of inspiration, and wasting time, if one should dare to say it, in pursuing will-o’-the-wisps, that might have made the world richer with miracles to mate with the Gioconda and the John Baptist.