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Leonardo's Library The World of a Renaissance Reader

Introduction to the Exhibition

The illegitimate son of a Tuscany notary, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was a talented and versatile artist who learned his craft as an apprentice to Andrea del Verrocchio in Renaissance Florence. Leonardo parlayed his great skill at visualizing knowledge into a storied career as a painter, engineer, architect, inventor, and philosopher of nature. Reading was an essential part of his intellectual journey. Gutenberg’s printing press was one of the great experiments in Leonardo’s lifetime. He came of age with the birth of this new machine, which increased access to books while also transforming them. 

Save for one surviving manuscript with notes in his backwards hand, Leonardo’s lost library exists only on paper, in the form of lists and references in his famous notebooks to books he read, bought, borrowed, or simply hoped to find. This intriguing trail is a kind of mind map to one of the most intriguing figures of the Italian Renaissance. Leonardo was a lifelong learner who aspired to become an author of his own books on his own terms. Surviving notebooks, especially his work on anatomy and mechanics, bear witness to the kind of graphic innovations he had in mind for the future of the book. 

The opportunity to reconstruct Leonardo’s library with books and manuscripts from Stanford Special Collections, the David Rumsey Map Center, and the Stanford Medical History Center at Lane Library has given us a marvelous opportunity to explore the breadth of our medieval and Renaissance collections. We began this project with several goals in mind. First and foremost, we wanted to identify artifacts on Leonardo’s most important lists of books as well as works he cited often in his notebooks. We also wanted to assemble our most interesting manuscripts illuminating Florentine society in the age of Leonardo. 

As research progressed, it seemed essential to include multiple versions of important works—the Bible, Pliny, Ptolemy, Dante, even Giordano Ruffo’s book on equine medicine—to show the variety of what a “book” was during the Renaissance. This exhibition juxtaposes manuscript codices, illuminated incunabula, lavish printed folios filled with woodcuts, and Aldine pocket editions that used italic type for the first time. Finally, we found ourselves intrigued by the possibility of including books not literally on Leonardo’s lists to stand in for categories of reading that were otherwise not well represented. Many books also illustrate Renaissance reading practices in their marginalia, drawings, and other marks of ownership. 

We quickly discovered an embarrassment of riches, much more than we could possibly display. The books and manuscripts in this exhibit represent a carefully curated selection of the most interesting materials we discovered. The entries, written primarily by Stanford undergraduates and graduate students, reflect what we all have learned about Leonardo’s library and the authors on his bookshelf. 

Paula Findlen

Ubaldo Pierotti Professor of Italian History