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After Leonardo's death in 1519 Francesco Melzi, his favourite pupil, brought many of his manuscripts and drawings back to Italy. This is confirmed by a note written by an agent of the Duke of Ferrara, dated 1523, referring to:


those little books by Leonardo about the anatomy, and many other interesting things

a fact mentioned also by an early sixteenth century source, the "Anonimo Gaddiano", in regard to the inheritance left by Leonardo to Melzi, which included: "cash, clothing, books, drawings, painting instruments and portraits". Fortunately, of Leonardo's vast output, over five thousand pages of drawings and notes have come down to us, in his characteristic "mirror-image" hand-writing, running from right to left. But this huge mass of writings, undoubtedly the largest collection of the entire Renaissance, has endured many vicissitudes following Leonardo's death. In fact, Leonardo's manuscripts are today nothing like the way they appeared and were grouped together during his lifetime, or even when they passed into the hands of his faithful disciple, Francesco Melzi.

It was Melzi's heirs who, after his death in 1579, began to scatter the material. Having no idea of their importance, they initially stored Leonardo's drawings and manuscripts in a loft, later giving parts of it away or selling sheets cheaply to friends and collectors. Already in 1630, the Barnabite Antonio Mazenta speaks of the dispersal of the Leonardo manuscripts, and singles out Pompeo Leoni, a sculptor at the court of the King of Spain, as one of those chiefly responsible not only for losing part of the collection, but even worse, for rearranging the order of its contents. Indeed, in an effort to sort the artistic drawings from the technical ones, and to put together the scientific notes, he split up the original manuscripts, cut and pasted pages and created two separate collections. One is now called the "Codex Atlanticus", the other the Windsor collection, which contains some six hundred drawings. Using the same method, Leone went on to create at lest four more volumes.

Upon Leoni's death, his heirs brought part of the manuscripts back to Italy, where they were purchased by Count Galeazzo Arconati who, in 1637, donated them to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana where they remained until 1796, the year of Napoleon Bonaparte's arrival in Milan. Napoleon ordered the manuscripts to be transferred to Paris, but in 1851 the Austrian government requested their return. Only the Codex Atlanticus was actually returned, while the other twelve manuscripts, marked with the letters A to M, remained in Paris, and were regarded as lost. Other manuscripts stayed in Spain and then went their different ways. Others remained undiscovered until 1966, when they were found quite by chance in the archives of the National Library of Madrid.

The current Codex Leicester (formerly Hammer) is instead one of the manuscripts which Melzi did not inherit and which, curiously, strayed from the path of most of the other Leonardo notes and today is the only manuscript to be found in private hands. Studies on the Leonardo manuscripts were only embarked upon systematically towards the mid-19th century; around the turn of the century these investigations led to the establishment of the "Vinci Royal Commission"; the aim of these painstaking studies and transcriptions was to reconstruct the original arrangement of the manuscripts. The first public exhibitions of Leonardo's scientific and technological works dates back to this period.

This is why Leonardo's drawings are divided into ten different manuscripts:

Codex Arundel

This collection is housed in the British Library in London. It consists of a manuscript on paper bound in morocco leather, containing 238 pages of various sizes that had been cut and removed from other manuscripts. The collection deals with a variety of different subjects including studies in geometry, weights and architecture. Among the latter are notes concerning the royal residence of François I at Romarantin (France).
Most of the pages can be dated to between 1480 and 1518.

Codex Atlanticus

This Codex, kept in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, contains a number of drawings, most of which can be dated in the period 1480 to 1518. Various themes are touched on, from mathematics to geometry, astronomy, botany, zoology and the military arts. Today it consists of twelve leather-bound volumes, comprising 1,119 supports which gather together pages of different sizes. The name "Codex Atlanticus" derives from the fact that originally all the sheets were contained in a single large-sized volume, rather like an atlas in fact. The Codex Atlanticus was created around the end of the sixteenth century by the sculptor Pompeo Leoni who - in a disastrous operation - dismembered the original Leonardo manuscripts which had came into his possession. Leoni separated all the scientific and technical drawings, today contained in the Codex, from the naturalistic and anatomical ones, many of which are today part of the Royal Windsor collection.

Codex Trivulzianus

The Codex Trivulzianus is held in the Biblioteca Trivulziana at the Castello Sforzesco in Milan and comprises a folder containing 55 sheets (measuring 20.5 x 14 cm), out of the original 62. Besides studies in architecture and religious themes, it contains numerous pages testifying to Leonardo's self-taught efforts to improve his literary education. Most of the pages date from between 1487 and 1490.

Codex 'On the Flight of Birds'

Held in the Biblioteca Reale of Turin, this collection includes 17 pages (measuring 21 x 15 cm) out of the original 18. It deals primarily with the flight of birds, which Leonardo analysed with a very rigorous approach, paying particular attention to the mechanics of flight, as well as to air resistance, winds and currents. The pages can be dated to approximately 1505.

Codex Ashburnham

To be found in the Institute de France, in Paris. Two cardboard-bound paper manuscripts (measuring 24 x 19 cm). Originally part of Codex A, from which they were torn in the nineteenth century. Conventionally identified as number 2037 (former Codex B) and number 2038 (former Codex A). These collections mainly contain pictorial studies (Ash. 2038) and assorted drawings (Ash. 2037), which Leonardo in all likelihood drew between 1489 and 1492.

Codices of the Institut de France

These documents are to be found at the Institute de France in Paris, and comprise twelve paper manuscripts, some bound in parchment, others in leather, and others still in cardboard. They are in a variety of sizes, the smallest being Codex M (10 x 7 cm) and the largest Codex C (31 x 22 cm). They are conventionally identified by a letter of the alphabet, from A to M. Various subjects are covered: military art, optics, geometry, the flight of birds, hydraulics. The majority of the pages can be dated, presumably, to the period between 1492 and 1516.

Codex Forster

These manuscripts are in London, at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The paper manuscripts are parchment-bound and are known as: "Forster I" (14 x 10 cm), "Forster II" (10 x 7 cm) and "Forster III" (9 x 7 cm). They include studies on geometry, weights and hydraulic machines which Leonardo carried out in different periods, between 1490 and 1496 for "Forster III", between 1495 and 1497 for "Forster II" and between 1487 and 1490-1505 for "Forster I".

Codex Leicester

former Codex Hammer
This Codex was purchased by Bill Gates in 1994. It is a paper manuscript, bound in leather and comprising 64 sheets measuring 30 x 22 cm, dedicated for the most part to studies in hydraulics and the movement of water; the manuscripts can be dated to the period between 1504 and 1506. Several studies in geology and astronomy are also included.

Windsor folios

These drawings are to be found in Windsor Castle (Royal Collection) and comprise approximately 600 unbound drawings of various sizes. They concern anatomy and geography, horse studies, drawings, caricatures and a series of maps. The drawings belong to different periods in the life of Leonardo, roughly between 1478 and 1518.

The Madrid Codices

These manuscripts are in the National Library of Madrid, where they were rediscovered only in 1966. The two paper manuscripts are bound in red morocco leather. For fast identification purposes, they were named "Madrid I" and "Madrid II". Most of the pages contained in "Madrid I" - 192 sheets (21 x 15 cms. in size) - prevalently concern studies in mechanics and can be dated to between 1490 and 1496, whilst those in "Madrid II" are dedicated to studies in geometry, and date to between 1503 and 1505.

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