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Leonardo’s notebook

Image from Leonardo’s notebook

Leonardo da Vinci's notebook
British Library Arundel MS 263, f.86v-87
Copyright © The British Library Board
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Few persons have achieved the level of immediate recognition of Leonardo da Vinci. His 'Mona Lisa' is a universally recognised image and has been adapted to suit any number of purposes, sometimes humorously and more often commercially. The stunning success of Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code documents the continued fascination that Leonardo da Vinci exercises on the Western imagination, nearly 500 years after his death. For many readers the book has gone beyond the boundaries of fiction. It is often discussed not as a novel but as history. Leonardo da Vinci has achieved the rare status of being a real person, who has become so famous that he can be used as the key fictional figure in a major commercial success.

This notebook da Vinci in the British Library is known today as the Codex Arundel. It is not a bound volume, but was put together after his death from his loose papers of various types and sizes.

The first section was begun at Florence on 22 March 1508, but the remainder comes from different periods in Leonardo's life (1452-1519). This collection of Leonardo's notes contains short treatises, notes and drawings on a variety of subjects from mechanics to the flight of birds. They are written in Italian, and in Leonardo's characteristic 'mirror writing', left-handed and moving from right to left.

In addition to a fascination with the abstract geometry of the patterns of reflection, Leonardo was interested in the potential utility of concave mirrors as sources of heat. On the page shown here, Leonardo is arguing that in concave mirrors of equal diameter, the one which has a shallower curve will concentrate the highest number of reflected rays on to a focal point, and 'as a consequence, it will kindle a fire with greater rapidity and force'.

Little is known of this manuscript until it was acquired by Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel (1586-1646), the greatest English art collector of of his day. In 1681 it was presented to the Royal Society by Henry Howard, Arundel's grandson and transferred to the British Museum in 1831, and from there to the British Library.

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