The British Library has removed its digital version of Leonardo’s Codex Leicester which belongs to Microsoft founder Bill Gates from its website after only six months. With great fanfare, the digitised notebook was put on the library’s website on 30 January, at the launch of Microsoft’s new Vista software. This represented the “digital reunification” of the Codex Leicester and the British Library’s Codex Arundel.
Mr Gates said at the Vista launch that offering the Leonardo codices online was “a great example of how personal computing has enormous power to change the way we think and learn through digital access to information”. British Library chief executive Lynne Brindley described the Leonardo digitisation as “making history” (March 2007, p2).
Last month a Microsoft spokesperson explained that reproduction rights to the Codex Leicester are owned by Corbis, a company privately owned by Mr Gates, who had bought the Leonardo notebook in 1994 for $31m. Microsoft “acquired the [Corbis] rights for use during the launch of Windows Vista”, for a period of six months, which ended in August.
Despite an initial hope that the six-month period would be extended, this was not ultimately requested by the British Library. This caused considerable surprise to Professor Martin Kemp, the Oxford-based Leonardo specialist who had supported the launch of the digitised version. “I am saddened that Codex Leicester is no longer available on the web,” he said.
However, we can reveal that discussions are now underway with a view to displaying the original of Codex Leicester at the British Library, in a temporary exhibition.
Last winter the Codex Leicester was due to be included in the V&A’s Leonardo show, but the loan was withdrawn at a late stage when the museum felt unable to accept Mr Gates’s stringent lighting restrictions (October 2006, p10).
The Codex is usually displayed once a year in a different city, and this summer it was at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin. In Dublin, an unusual lighting system was introduced to meet Mr Gates’s requirements. A third of the leaves were displayed at a maximum of 25 lux (compared with 50 lux for other Leonardo notebooks in the V&A show), another third were under fading light, and the final third in near darkness, with the lighting changing every three minutes.