Leonardo's First Books

As the son of a Tuscan notary in a long line of notaries, the young Leonardo would have come into contact with a number of books in his grandfather’s home in Vinci and his father’s home in Florence, to say nothing of the oral literary culture he would have heard in the streets, marketplaces, and churches. The “three crowns”—Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio—formed the foundation of vernacular Italian literature, and all three were Tuscan. It is an irony that Dante is not named in any of Leonardo’s book lists, yet the author of the Divine Comedy bore lasting influence on him as a model of universal knowledge. In the homes of the professional classes, the Bible, devotional works, and books of hours, which included prayers to be said throughout the day, were the most common religious books to be found, but books of jokes, bawdy novellas, and picaresque epics could also be had for entertainment.

Leonardo came of age with the debut of the printing press in Italy, yet many of the books he first saw and handled likely were manuscripts, whether his family’s libro di ricordi, his father’s account books and notarial records, or works both ancient and contemporary copied out by hand for personal use. Fifteenth-century Florence was renowned for its beautifully illuminated manuscripts, collected by Renaissance popes and princes to adorn their libraries. The first printed Florentine book appeared in 1471, when Leonardo was a nineteen-year-old apprentice to Andrea del Verrocchio. Leonardo’s own voluminous writings and notebooks would have looked at home next to the manuscripts of the generation before the printing press.

[J. G. Amato]

Dante Alighieri, 1265–1321

Commentary by Cristoforo Landino

Danthe alighieri fiorentino

Venice: Piero de Zuanne di Quarengi da Palazago Bergamasco, 1497

Rare Book Collection KA1497 .D36 F CB

Though Leonardo never listed this book in his library, he knew and quoted Dante, and would likely have known this version of Dante’s Divina Commedia with a commentary by the Italian humanist Cristoforo Landino. Intricate woodcut illustrations accompany the text, a testament to the developments in printing design in late fifteenth-century Venice. Dante’s allegorical work, which follows him as he moves through hell, purgatory, and paradise, was written in the Tuscan vernacular. This departure from the usual Latin deeply influenced Italian culture in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The Italian language became the voice of an emerging vernacular humanist culture and set the precedent for a new literary style to imitate and perfect. Landino’s insightful commentary links Dante’s words to the flourishing culture and technology in Florence, referencing artists such as Giotto, Fra Angelico, and Bramante, and relating his work to contemporary philosophical and cultural thought.

[Isabel Benak]

Dante Alighieri, 1265–1321

Le terze rime di Dante (La Divina Commedia)

Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1502

Gunst Collection Z239.9 .A36 D19

Bequest of Mr. and Mrs. William H. Crocker

Founded in 1494 by Aldus Manutius, the Aldine Press in Venice was notable for its editions of Latin and Greek classics as well as the introduction of italic type. This typographic innovation made possible a more compact presentation of the text, facilitating smaller, portable volumes. The Aldine Divina Commedia is a prime example. Though it lacks illustrations, readers of this copy could enjoy the red-and-gold tipped capitals heralding the first canto of a new section. Profoundly peripatetic as he was, we can imagine Leonardo’s pleasure at the compact, portable Aldine Dante. After years in the Sforza court of Milan, Leonardo spent about two months in Venice in 1500. During his short sojourn, he would have come into contact with the city’s foremost literati, gaining inside knowledge of Venice’s vibrant print culture, though he would not have seen the Aldine Dante before the year he worked as Cesare Borgia’s military engineer.

[Graylin Harrison]

Ser Ricciardo di Nanni, fl. 1445–1480

Francesco di Antonio del Chierico, 1443–1484

Officium Beate Marie Virginis: Secundum consuetudinem romane ecclesie

Florence: ca. 1460–1480

Manuscript Collection CODEX 1052 T

This illuminated manuscript belongs to a genre of Catholic prayer books called books of hours, the most frequently commissioned books during Leonardo’s lifetime. At its core are prayers dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Its calendar of church feasts contains the names of two local saints, Zenobius and Reparata, which suggest its Florentine origins.

The frontispiece, produced in the style or hand of Ricciardo di Nanni (fl. 1445–1480), displays the martyrdom of Saint Catherine, beneath which appear the coats of arms of the Castellani and Baroncelli families. It may have been a wedding gift for Caterina Castellani. Its size suggests it was created for personal use.

Leonardo’s female patrons would have used such prayer books regularly to “recite the hours.” Perhaps his observation of female reading practices inspired his Annunciation (1472), the artist’s first painting, which depicts a reading Mary.

[Maria Terss]

Antonio Vespucci, 1449–1534

Vespucci Notarial Scroll

Florence: September, 1480

Manuscript Collection CODEX M0370 CB

While this scroll was never in Leonardo’s library, its contents tell something about the world he lived in. The Renaissance is often looked upon as a time of art and science; it was also a time of violence and political upheaval, a fact that shaped Leonardo’s thought and studies throughout his life.

Notary Antonio Vespucci composed the text of this scroll authorizing the sale of assets from the Pazzi family, who attempted to usurp power from the Medici in what is known as the Pazzi conspiracy. Assailants attacked the Medici during mass in Santa Maria del Fiore. Lorenzo de’ Medici escaped, but his brother, Giuliano, was killed. The Pazzi were exiled, and this scroll records legal consequences in the aftermath of the event.

The incident affected Leonardo, who sketched a macabre visualization of the hanging body of Bernardo di Bandino, one of the Pazzi conspirators who was publicly executed.

[Neil Jain]