Leonardo da Vinci

Books: Robert Zwijnenberg on order and chaos in the writings of Leonardo da Vinci

A new book explores the notebooks of the Renaissance Master

In his lifetime Leonardo produced 65,000 sheets of texts, drawings in notebooks and collections of loose leaves. Although his work as a painter was intermittent, Leonardo attended to his notebooks with regularity, apparently daily. In this study, Robert Zwijnenberg has two aims: first, to explain how the notebooks were vital to Leonardo (and, consequently, vital to our understanding of him as an artist) and, second, to elucidate the character and form of the notebooks as ends in themselves. Dr Zwijnenberg examines their fragmentary composition, the close connection between the texts and their imagery and, of course, the famous mirror writing. He is emphatic that the notebooks were primarily personal and not composed with an eye to their being read by others. He asserts that Leonardo also had not meant to use the notebooks as catalogues of ideas to be quarried for projects or treatises at some later date. He also rejects previous studies of the notebooks that treated the chaotic nature of the entries as an obstacle to be overcome and put into order before a proper analysis could be undertaken. Dr Zwijnenberg’s contention is that the disorder of the notebooks was intentional on Leonardo’s part because the random juxtaposition of material acted as a stimulus for his creativity: Leonardo responded to the possibilities suggested by the accidental coincidences of words and images. Dr Zwijnenberg clearly relishes Leonardo’s chaos. The paradox is that Dr Zwijnenberg’s own analytical clarity and order allowed this reader to appreciate the aleatory dynamism of Leonardo’s mind and hand.

Robert Zwijnenberg, The writings and drawings of Leonardo da Vinci: order and chaos in early modern thought (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999), 288 pp, 31 b/w ills, £35, $55 (hb) ISBN 0521632390

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Robert Zwijnenberg, The writings and drawings of Leonardo da Vinci: Order and chaos in early modern thought'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 98 December 1999