The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci: Selected Extracts from the Writings of the Renaissance Genius

Reviewed by Deane Barker tags: da-vinci, science, history

This is really a coffee table book. I think I got it at Costco, but it’s beautifully bound with a cloth cover. I endeavored to read this, even though it’s not that readable – or even designed/intended to be read at all.

I set my timer to one hour, and sat in a chair with nothing but the book.

There’s a narrative introduction which provides an overview of Da Vinci’s life. It mentions that there are over 4,000 extant pages of Da Vinci’s notebooks (Isaacson’s biography put it at over 7,000). And then there’s another extended overview of his life that was written by a contemporary in 1550.

From there, the book is divided into section based on subject:

  • Art
  • Anatomy
  • Physical Science
  • Designs
  • Philosophy

In each section are reproductions of the art of the notebooks, as well as textual extracts.

I spent the hour browsing. It’s not really something you would read, because Da Vinci isn’t for everyone. However, I do appreciate the forthrightness of what he says – he was talking notes for himself, clearly, and described things as he saw them, as if this was all settled fact.

For example, on how to describe the organs of the chest cavity:

Make first the ramification of the lung, and then make the ramification of the heart, that is of its veins and arteries; afterwards make the third ramification of the mixture of the one ramification with the other; and these mixtures you will make from four aspects, an you will do the like with the said ramification which we will twelve; and then make a view each from above and one from below, and this will make all eighteen demonstrations.

Clearly, this is not something you would read for pleasure – a lot of it is very esoteric like that. And there are pages and pages of this.

I spent quite a bit of time in the index, from which I found some curiosities, such as this references under “sexual organs”:

The act of procreation and the members employed therein are so repulsive that if it were not for the beauty of the faces and the adornments of the actors and the pent-up impulse, nature would lose the human species.

Oh, poor Leonardo. (Interesting note: Leonardo was most likely gay, but he’s clearly discussing procreative sex there…)

This is a fun book to browse, but it has very little value beyond that. Da Vinci’s interests were so wildly eclectic, that you’d have to be just as interested in all of them to get much practical out of it.

Book Info

Edward McCurdy, Leonardo da Vinci

This is item #12 in a sequence of 730 items.

You can use your left/right arrow keys to navigate