12 October 2023

Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks: not only technology

The Victoria & Albert’s Forster Codices are now fully digitalized.

Scala is pleased to present the complete digitalization (more than 600 images) of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, better known as Forster Codices. The codices are now kept at the Victoria & Albert Museum of London and can be consulted online. The notebooks contain Leonardo’s written thoughts on technology, mechanics, hydraulics, architecture and many more issues, providing a unique understanding of Leonardo’s genius.

Leonardo da Vinci and the Forster Codices

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is renowned worldwide for his brilliant and multifaceted ideas in various fields. He was, in fact, an accomplished inventor, engineer, architect, and artist.

We know today that Leonardo was a great populariser: these handwritten notebooks give us the opportunity to study his innovations and ideas through drawings, diagrams, and notes exactly as he wrote them.

The notebooks – dated from 1487 to 1505 – contain accurate sketches and diagrams, and information in Italian and in his famous mirror writing. Mirror writing has to be read backwards, and from right to left. Throughout the years there has been a lot of speculation as to the reason behind Leonardo’s choice to use this type of writing: was it because it is more difficult to decipher, or was it simply because he was left-handed?

The history of these notebooks is not clear and remains mostly unknown. From reported contemporary facts it seems that Leonardo brought the notebooks along with him wherever he went. In fact, in 1517, in Leonardo’s last residence at Ambroise, there were an ‘’infinity of volumes’’, which were then dispersed after his death.

Only some changes of ownership and events surrounding these manuscripts are known.  

We will focus on the five notebooks kept at the Victoria & Albert Museum and known as the Forster Codices. The name comes from the last owner – the English literary critic John Forster – who bequeathed them to the Museum in 1876. 

The notebooks were originally loose handwritten sheets, and ere later folded and grouped into booklets, which finally were bound in volumes. Today the 5 notebooks of the V&A collection are divided into three volumes.

Scholars hypothesize that the first folding of the loose sheets took place under the ownership of the Spanish sculptor Pompeo Leoni (1533-1608). Leoni had received the papers from Francesco Melzi, painter and pupil of Leonardo. Indeed, two parts of the Codex Forster I show numbering and signature attributed to Pompeo Leoni.   

Most of the changes in ownership and the journeys made by these manuscripts remain shrouded in mystery. The presence of notations in German on the first page of the Forster I, suggests that these notebooks passed through a German speaking country. After Pompeo Leoni the next known purchase was in Vienna in 1862 by the politician and poet Robert Bulwer-Lytton. It was Robert Bulwer-Lytton who ultimately gave them to John Forster.

The three Forster Codices, now fully digitized

For the 500th anniversary of the birth of Leonardo da Vinci in 2019, Victoria & Albert Museum planned the complete digitization of the Forster Codices. The Covid-19 health emergency slowed down the admirable project, but today it is finally complete and can be consulted more easily.

The codices are not bound to follow any specific logic or chronological order. The following are the descriptions of the contents of each of the three volumes.

The Codex Forster I contains both the first notebook (from folio 41, circa 1487-90, Milan) and the last (up to folio 40, 1505, Florence). The topics range from hydraulic engineering to a treatise on the measurement of solids.

See here all the images of the Codex Forster I

The Codex Forster II

The Codex Forster II consists of two notebooks bound together. These notebooks are supposed to have been written in Milan. During that time Leonardo was at the service of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza (1452-1508).

The first notebook (up to folio 63, circa 1495) contains notes and diagrams on the theory of proportions. It also contains various sketches, including weaving looms (sheets 49 verso – 50 recto), architecture (as on folio 52 recto) and some figurative drawings such as a Virgin and Child (folio 37 recto). The second notebook (from folio 64, circa 1495 – 97) includes notes on the theory of weights and scales, as well as sketches on perpetual motion (as on folios 90 verso – 91 recto), drawings of helmets (folio 65 recto) and a recipe for making paint (folio 159 recto).

Since Leonardo wrote in mirror writing – backwards and from right to left-, he often started from what in the western world is considered the last page. This can be noticed in the second notebook, where Leonardo himself numbered the sheets from 1 (folio 158 verso) to 94 (folio 65 verso).

See here all the images of the Codex Forster II.

The Codex Forster III

The Codex Forster III was compiled between circa 1490 and 1493, during Leonardo’s stay in Milan. If we look at the topics covered, this is the most varied manuscript. It contains diagrams on geometry, weights, and hydraulics. There are annotations and sketches on topics such as architecture (see sheet 55 verso), fashion and hats (sheets 8 verse – 10 recto), as well as human and animal anatomy. On the sheet 28 recto, for example, a drawing shows the hair and layers of skin of a human head. There are also notes related to painting, such as recipes that explain how to prepare linseed oil with mustard seeds (sheet 10 verso). 

See here all the images of the Codex Forster III

Do you want to expand your research on Leonardo da Vinci’s writings with images from other manuscripts and notebooks? Click here to view a selection of Leonardo’s drawings.

Scala is pleased to officially represent the Victoria & Albert Museum of London in Italy, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, and Latin America. You can freely search on our website for images related to this museum. If you do not find the right image for your project, you can rely on us for a more in-depth free search. Contact us, we will be happy to help.


In the cover: The Forster Codex. Italy, 15th-16th century. Folios 6 verso and 7 recto from volume 1