'Thinking on paper': da Vinci notebook on exhibit at MIA reveals the artist's creative process

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Leonardo da Vinci was much more than a painter. He was a true Renaissance Man (he lived during that time, after all) with keen interests in architecture, engineering, mathematics and music.

A small window into da Vinci's creativity is now on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) in the form of a rare notebook of his, called the "Codex Leicester."

The exhibition is organized to explore the ways in which “thinking on paper,” curiosity, and observation can lead to innovation. For da Vinci, thinking on paper facilitated his understanding of the world around him.

The codex is a 72-page notebook - more than 500 years old - in which da Vinci tried to explain the properties of water, and through that knowledge he wanted to "gain a greater understanding of the earth and celestial bodies," the MIA said in a news release about the exhibit.

 Leonardo da Vinci self portrait (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Leonardo da Vinci self portrait (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The codex is extraordinary in several ways:

*First and foremost, because it's still in existence. Scholars believe da Vinci penned at least 90 such notebooks on a wide range of subjects, but only 31 of them still survive. He wrote the Codex Leicester between 1508 and 1510.

*Second, da Vinci used "mirror writing," writing from right to left on the page, so the text needs to be held up to a mirror to be read. He didn't write it that way to be secretive, but because he was left handed and didn't want his sleeve to smudge the ink, explained the exhibit's curator Alex Bortolot, according to MinnPost.

*Third, the margins of the pages are filled with small, meticulously drawn sketches that da Vinci linked back to his written observations of how water flows and swirls and how it could be measured or redirected by a manmade device. Other sketches speculate about the composition of the moon, and its relationship to the sun and Earth, according to the Star Tribune.

*Fourth, the codex is owned by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who bought it for $30.8 million in 1994, making it the most valuable manuscript in the world.

Fast Company interviewed Gates recently about why he purchased the notebook, noting that as one of history's most famous multitaskers, he is drawn to one of the others. Gates was asked what value he finds in a 500-year-old journal.

"It's an inspiration that one person—off on their own, with no feedback, without being told what was right or wrong—that he kept pushing himself," Gates says, "that he found knowledge itself to be the most beautiful thing."

At Gates' request, visitors will need to go through additional airport-like security screening to get into the exhibit.

Bartolot, the curator, warns visitors that they won't see any of da Vinci's paintings at this show. It's not the Mona Lisa, he said, it’s "the mind behind the Mona Lisa," acccording to MinnPost.

The exhibit, “Leonardo da Vinci, the Codex Leicester, and the Creative Mind," uses da Vinci's notes as a jumping-off point to explore creativity in current times, according to the MIA.

Other elements in the show include notebooks and projects by 21st-century American inventors and artists; people who invented Rollerblades and infant car seats, among other things, the Star Tribune notes.

"By juxtaposing works from today with the Codex, we’re making connections between Leonardo and the creative potential of today’s artists, engineers, and designers," said Bartolot.

The exhibit, which was organized in collaboration with the Phoenix Art Museum, runs until August 30. Then it will travel to the North Carolina Museum of Art.

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