Learning from the Ancients

The Renaissance, a cultural movement of which Leonardo is today considered an icon, was sparked by a rediscovery and “rebirth” of classical—that is, ancient Greek and Roman—culture and thought. The bearers of this culture and thought were the literary works of the ancients themselves, safeguarded since the fall of Rome by continuous copying and study in religious institutions. Their survival was assured first by Renaissance manuscript hunters and then by the invention of print, but it was their translation into the vernacular that made them truly available to a large public. In Leonardo’s lifetime, Italian editions of classical culture’s “greatest hits”—the poems of Virgil, Horace, and Ovid, as well as numerous prose histories, speeches, and treatises—flooded the book market to the delight of Romanophiles.

Leonardo worked diligently to be able to read Latin for scholarly and scientific purposes: not every technical text, after all, had been translated into Italian, and many Greek texts, such as Euclid’s Elements, were translated, if at all, only into Latin. When he read the classics for pleasure, however, he was content to experience them in his native Italian. A perennial favorite was Ovid’s Metamorphoses (rendered into prose from the original Latin hexameter verse), as well as Livy’s monumental History of Rome (Ab urbe condita), whose first, third, and fourth “decades” (ten-book installments) Leonardo owned as early as the 1490s. Relatively unimportant in the curricula of classical schools, which favored Virgil, Caesar, and Cicero, these works demonstrate by their presence in Leonardo’s collection how antiquity captured the broader Renaissance imagination and shaped Leonardo’s literary taste.

[Veronica S.-R. Shi]

Livy, 59 BCE–17 CE

Deche di Tito Livio vulgare [sic] historiate

Venice: Bartolomeo Zani, 1502

Gunst Collection Z239.9 .Z3 L5 1502 F

Born in Padua, Livy moved to Rome, where, from the age of thirty, he devoted himself to writing history. His great work is the Ab urbe condita, an annalistic account of Rome from its foundation through Livy’s time. Originally comprising 142 books, mostly lost, the surviving text is owed largely to Petrarch (1304–1374), who found manuscripts of the first, third, and fourth decades at Chartres and recombined them for the first time since antiquity.

By the Renaissance, Livy’s textual transmission was therefore already one of humanism’s great achievements, and he became an influential author in this period. The first Latin edition was published in Venice in 1470. Noted already by Quintilian (ca. 35–100 CE) for his candor (clarity), Livy’s anecdotal style emphasized drama and moral tension, and perhaps for these reasons he became a favorite source for artists and writers. This edition, translated by the Florentine humanist Leonardo Bruni (1369–1444) with Bruni’s history of the Punic wars appended, first appeared in 1493 with more than four hundred woodcuts, some of them originally used in the Malermi Bible.

Leonardo’s interest in Livy seems to have been of a practical nature. In his anatomical attempt at locating the sensus communis (the soul), Leonardo cites the Roman historian’s description of how elephants were killed by their riders, in order to design an experiment for pithing a frog (Manuscript B, fol. 9r).

[Nicholas Fenech]

Aesop, ca. 620–564 BCE

Vita, & fabellae Aesopi

Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1505

Gunst Collection Z239.9 .A36 A25 1505 F CB

The Fabellae Aesopi (Aesop’s Fables) is a collection of stories credited to the Greek fabulist mysteriously referred to simply as Aesop. Ancient chroniclers such as Herodotus wrote that Aesop spent his early life in slavery on the Greek island of Samos; the sharp wit of his stories eventually gained him freedom. His stories, which featured animals as main characters and always included a moral lesson, were carried on verbally—it was not until after his lifetime that the fables were written down, first in Greek but soon translated and printed into many languages.

A notable detail of this book is its Aldine printer’s device of a dolphin and anchor used by the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, founder of the Aldine Press. Aldus published elegant editions of ancient texts, including small-format editions he referred to as part of his Libelli Portatiles (Portable Library)—beautifully designed secular books that engaged readers in the manner of a richly illustrated book of hours. Leonardo could pass time reading fables such as The Fox and the Lion, or The Dog and the Oyster.

This edition includes both Latin and Greek translations of the fables. Because Leonardo could not read Greek and struggled with Latin, he likely preferred the French edition of Aesop that he had in his library, and also relied on the oral dissemination of the fables as told by his contemporaries (much as in Aesop’s own time). Reading Aesop’s fables was not an intellectual exercise; he probably read them for pleasure and even composed several of his own fables.

[Trenton Irwin]

Ovid, 43 BCE–17/18 CE


Venice: Boneto Locatelli, 1493

Rare Book Collection KA1493 .O95 F CB

Despite his renown as a poet, Ovid (the former poet laureate of Augustan Rome), lived his last days in exile on the island of Tomis after he was banished for a transgression that he cryptically described as “worse than murder.” By the time of his exile, Ovid had completed the Ars amatoria (poems on the art of seduction) and his most famous work, the Metamorphoses (a narrative poem that describes the creation and history of the world). The Metamorphoses, whose basic theme is that of transformation, was one of the first and most frequently printed books, along with the Bible; between 1471 and 1500 it went through at least thirty-four editions.

Leonardo borrowed one of these early editions around 1478, “from Michele di Francesco Bernabini and his descendants,” as he recorded in his notebooks. He later owned a copy. Leonardo seems to have been especially interested in Book XV, in which Numa leaves his hometown of Cures to learn the secrets of the universe from Pythagoras. The poem seems like a natural match for Leonardo’s hyperactive intellect, and may well have served as a starting place for his thinking about nature; more concerned with variety than with schematic unity, Ovid evokes a universal material substrate that mediates transitions between humans and plants, humans and animals, and even humans and gods. Certain passages in Leonardo’s writings bear clear Ovidian influences, such as his poetic description of a fossilized fish, an account of the plight of victims of a deluge, and a melancholic note about how even Helen of Troy succumbed to “time, devourer of all things.”

[Corey Dansereau]