The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci

by Edward MacCurdy
[Reynal & Hitchcock, 2 vols., $1.5,00]
CLEARLY presenting the gist of Leonardo da Vinci’s commentary on life, this translation is the most comprehensive approach to his character in the English language. The two volumes contain 1294 pages arranged under fifty headings, with a useful index and sixty-four significant illustrations. These excellent photogravures suggest the appearance of the original manuscripts, in which one or more drawings accompany almost every observation. Leonardo’s finished work was to have been the first completely illustrated encyclopædia ever devised.
To-day, four hundred years after their composition, the notebooks still hold much useful information. Their greatest value lies in the fields of art. education, the history of culture and philosophy, but for specialists interested in any given scientific field the notes offer few new solutions. They can be of great use in teaching a method of scientific exploration or in demonstrating the tremendous potentialities of the human mind. Moreover, artists can here find an almost complete edition of da Vinci’s Treatise on Painting, particularly valuable at a time when their art, influenced by the motion pictures, again shows a tendency toward realistic portrayal and the mural style.
Classicists will be gratified to discover among the notes numerous adaptations from Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, Ovid, Horace, and Marcus Aurelius. Lesser-known writers such as the historian Ammianus Marcellinus. the philosopher Boethius, and the physician. Cornelius Celsus, as well as the scientists and engineers Euclid, Archimedes, and Vitruvius, also contributed thoughts from antiquity. Mediæval scholars will notice that Leonardo improved upon his Gothic predecessors, Albertus Magnus, Villard de Honneconrt, and Roger Bacon, recasting the misunderstood theories of Aristotle, evaluating them by discovering and applying to them the scientific experimental methods of their original Greek creator. The scholar Leonardo appears as the final mediæval intermediary between antiquity and those French Encyclopædists whose programme became the basis of the modern university. The objectivity and accuracy of Leonardo’s new scientific observations seem almost miraculous when one considers the century in which they were made. They evidence a clarity of vision which strengthens Lombroso’s contention that ‘this man presents the only example of a normal, universally-minded genius.’
Mr. MacCurdy’s splendid informative preface, in the main sympathetic and accurate, has one weakness: its author still subscribes to the Victorian literary interpretation of Leonardo’s character which pictures Leonardo as a thwarted artist incapable of affection for women. The translator has omitted from these volumes several pages in which Leonardo describes his attitude toward the world of womankind and his own emotional life. Because of these omissions and in view of the fact that in some places varying translations are possible when certain passages are not separated from their context and illustrations, it may seem a bit premature for the publishers to advertise this as ’the definitive edition.’
Mr. MacCurdy has reprinted unchanged the ‘Record of the Manuscripts’ from his smaller l923 edition. Had he availed himself more completely of the recent research of Gerolamo Calvi and Kenneth Clark he might easily have dated each note so that the reader could gain some idea of the development of Leonardo’s thoughts. For example: Leonardo’s invention of war machines might be seen to have ended after Leonardo decided, probably during the campaign with Borgia, that war was ’the most bestial madness.’ Again, MacCurdy’s expressed belief that the aging Leonardo gradually substituted activity in science for that in art could be disproved by inclusion of one of the youthful sketches or earliest manuscript pages which show equal activity in both fields. Moreover, most of Leonardo’s significant paintings reached completion after his fortieth year. The inference can be drawn from the evidence in this magnificent collection of notes that, with an Aristotelian programme of symmetrical growth, Leonardo, like a Gothic cathedral, was obliged to develop slowly in all directions.
These criticisms of MacCurdy’s preface should not be taken as an indication that the two monumental volumes lack integrity, or that they are not tremendously worth-while. Few of a later generation would have had the foresight to begin or the patience to complete them.