Leonardo’s journals: A large window into the mind of a genius

The mind of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) still fascinates observers even after 500 years.

Leonardo's drawings of cats

Leonardo’s drawings of cats

He was interested in so many things, and he observed the world with the mind and attitude of a scientist, mechanic, inventor, naturalist, and philosopher. He was also a writer. And an artist, of course.

We know about Leonardo’s mind because he kept journals. He wrote down everything he observed; he drew — small drawings and large — to remind himself of what he had seen or to try to figure out what he was observing. He carried around a small sketchbook on his belt and drew and wrote in it constantly.

He drew out his ideas for inventions or improvements in the mechanical implements of 15th century life. He sketched preliminary drawings for paintings he was commissioned to execute. For a time, he was the “producer” for one of his employers; that is, he was in charge of costumes, parades, and theatrical productions — a very important part of court life during that time — and many of his drawings relate to ideas about how to stage those events.

He drew maps and military weapons. He drew babies in a mother’s womb. He drew cats, horses, and strange-looking people.

Nothing, it seems, escaped his notice.

Leonardo's designs for gun barrels and mortars

Leonardo’s designs for gun barrels and mortars

Biographer Walter Isaacson (author of the recently published Leonard da Vinci) writes that there are about 7,200 pages of Leonardo’s journals in existence in library and museum collections around the world. This is an astonishingly large collection. Yet these pages, Isaacson says, represent probably only about 25 percent of what he actually produced.

We wish we had more of them. But we are grateful for what we have.

When Leonardo died at the age of 67, he left only about 20 finished paintings; he left many paintings, projects, and ideas that were started but never completed. Leonardo knew the value of inspiration; he knew that knowledge, observation, and the spark of an idea could be fleeting. He wanted to capture as many of those as he could.

It was as if he received little satisfaction from completion — from having someone say, “That’s a job well done.”

See also on JPROF:

Leonardo and the ‘fleeting quality of imagination’

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Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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  1. Inspiration for a genius: recent discovery of a book that Shakespeare may have used for his writing | JPROF.com - February 15, 2018

    […] Leonardo da Vinci kept a vast quantity of journals (See Leonardo’s Journals: A large window into the mind of a genius here on JPROF.com), we have a good idea about how his mind worked, what he was thinking about, and what he […]

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