What's in Leonardo's library?

Stanford exhibition offers a literary peek into artist and 'renaissance reader' da Vinci's world

How do we get a sense of the character and motivations of historical figures? Often it is by their notable deeds, their written works or artistic output. In the case of Leonardo da Vinci -- artist, scientist and philosopher -- the most obvious answer would be the "Mona Lisa," "The Last Supper" or the voluminous notebooks that detailed his thoughts on everything from aviation to anatomy.

An exhibition at Stanford University's Green Library offers another insight into the extraordinary polymath's life: his library. On view until Oct. 13, "Leonardo's Library: The World of a Renaissance Reader" consists of displays of books (drawn from the university's rare book and map collections) known to have been owned by the Florentine artist, as well as examples of other writings and drawings from Leonardo's world. The display is enhanced by well-researched documentation that explains how and why Leonardo utilized them.

Museums and galleries around the world are marking the 500th anniversary of Leonardo's death this year with exhibitions celebrating his genius and amazingly diverse interests. Paula Findlen, a history professor at Stanford, decided to focus on how the invention of moveable type and the printing press allowed for the dissemination of information around Europe and to curious scholars like Leonardo da Vinci.

"We want people to see Leonardo as an enthusiastic reader and lifelong learner who came of age with the invention of the printing press, which not only changed what a book was but put many more books in his hands. He learned from books, indeed was inspired by them in different ways, including how to visualize knowledge in books," she explained.

How do we know what Leonardo read? Luckily for historians, he kept a detailed inventory of each book in his collection. Books would have been expensive and possibly difficult to obtain, so his cache of more than 100 volumes speaks a great deal about his need to fuel his curiosity. Findlen said that she and her graduate-student assistants gathered many examples of books on his inventory list, or cited in his notebooks, for inclusion in the exhibition. The students then worked closely with one or several artifacts to create their explanatory essays. An undergraduate course also resulted from the exhibition, as well as the publication of a fully-illustrated catalog.

The exhibition is organized thematically, with each case containing a category of study, such as astronomy, history, etc. The tomes displayed are very old (16th century), small in scale for the most part, and extremely dense. The tiny, flowing script in most of the books must have been difficult to decipher, and there is the additional challenge that almost all are written in Latin. Findlen explained that Leonardo, who was not a dutiful student as a child, had to learn Latin in his 40s in order to read the latest publications. As one might expect, the Bible was a must-have in any Renaissance home but, according to Findlen, there were some surprises.

"We didn't expect him to own a book on how to write a letter, but he had three. He owned the first printed cookbook, but we don't know if he ever made any of the recipes!"

Other books on his shelf included the first known encyclopedia, "Natural History," by Pliny the Elder, Livy's "History of Rome" and Dante's "Divine Comedy." Labels also point out that residents of Florence (the epicenter of Italian Renaissance culture and learning) probably also owned novellas, love sonnets, epic poems and "books of bawdy jokes." The books on display are heavy on typeface and light on illustration, but these scholarly texts inspired Leonardo to express complex concepts and ideas in visual terms.

John Mustain, curator of rare books for Stanford's Special Collections Library explained, "The vast majority of manuscripts of that era were not illustrated but rather working copies, books of information, produced without illustration and, consequently, at a lower price."

Exceptions are a Florentine "Book of Hours" (a collection of prayers to be said throughout the day) and a book by the most printed author in Florence, the religious zealot Savonarola. Titled "A Little Work on the Love of Jesus," this devotional text includes a detailed woodcut illustration of the crucifixion. Illustrated books about cartography, architecture and anatomy encouraged Leonardo to undertake his own studies on these subjects.

Why do we find these historic tomes so interesting? According to Mustain, who has overseen the university's rare book collection for more than 35 years, and assisted with the exhibition, "It seems to me that the digital age has somehow rekindled an intense interest in the original artifact. There is something very special about handling an artifact, feeling its heft, appraising its size, understanding how it was produced, wondering how many people in the past have used it and how they used it."

In a time when information is available at the click of a mouse, this exhibition serves to remind us of how the advancement of knowledge was propelled by the invention of the printed book, and the impact it had on the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci -- the epitome of the renaissance man.

Freelance writer Sheryl Nonnenberg can be emailed at nonnenberg@aol.com.

What: "Leonardo's Library: The World of a Renaissance Reader."

Where: Peterson Gallery and Munger Rotunda, Green Library Bing Wing, 557 Escondido Mall, Stanford.

When: Through Oct. 13. Exhibit cases are illuminated daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Cost: Free. First-time visitors and those without Stanford ID must register at either of the entrances to Green Library before entering the building.

Info: Green Library.

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