Abandoned, destroyed & forgotten

The fortunate survival of Leonardo's treasures

Leonardo da Vinci, in search for employment, had to try to entice the Duke of Milan with a promise to “unfold to you my secrets”. The list of ten impressive things he could create was : “methods for destroying every fortress; cannon, mortar and light ordnance of very beautiful and functional design; catapults” etc.

As to building instead of destroying, Leonardo suggested that for “time of peace”, number ten on the list, “I can give as complete satisfaction as any other in the field of architecture, and the construction of both public and private buildings, and in conducting water from one place to another”. Then sculpture, and finally, “in painting, I can do everything possible as well as any other, whosoever he may be”.

So in addition to hydraulic engineering projects and creating decorative sets for parties and weddings, Leonardo also received commissions to create paintings that ranged from an image of the Virgin for a church to the wall of a dining hall for a monastery.
Both the Virgin of the Rocks and The Last Supper, two of the most influential paintings of the Renaissance, proved that, indeed, he could paint “as well as any other”.

This chapter is a tribute to the genius of Leonardo, blessed with an inquisitive mind and an imagination that wandered into the fields of arithmetic, music, sculpture, architecture, machinery, astronomy, poetry, human anatomy, and painting... so much so that “his brain never stopped imagining such things”.

Then it goes on explaining the fate of his books, notebooks and sketches, where the creative mind put to paper with one of the finest hands ever, his notes and studies.
Sixteen years before he died, Leonardo listed 50 books he had written, and in his last years at the court of the French King, a visitor described the master having written “a treatise on anatomy... written of divers machines, and of other matters” amounting to “an endless number of volumes”.


This “endless number of volumes” came back to Italy, given to his assistant Melzi. There, visitors described a “courteous old man who treasures these papers and conserves them along with a portrait of Leonardo to honour his happy memory”.
Melzi faithfully preserved his master's papers, aiming to organise Leonardo's thoughts, scattered on thousands of pages, to publish what would have been entire treatises on painting, anatomy and mechanics. Such a task though that even with two assistants, it was left unfinished.

All the papers were in turn bequeathed to Melzi's son. That is when an art lover priest described “his heirs, having very different taste and occupations, neglected these treasures” so much so it was easy for someone to “take anything he wanted” that is “thirteen volumes”.
Having persuaded the thief to return the books, the priest tried to bring them to Melzi “who was very surprised of the predicament I brought unto myself, gave them to me while saying that he had of the same painter many other drawings that remained abandoned in trunks in the villa's attic”.


When people realised how easy it was to acquire Leonardo's works they “took drawings, anatomical models, and many precious relics of Leonardo's workshop”. The unwanted books and drawings taken represent the majority of Leonardo's surviving treasures. Whatever remained in the attic was left to humidity, insects or fire.

Trying to measure the loss of Leonardo's papers is quite a dispiriting task, as estimates go as high as 80%...

Sixteen years before he died, Leonardo listed 50 books he had written, while only half that number survive today. In a note about his anatomical studies, he wrote of having composed “hundred and twenty books” while admitting being hindered “by want of time”.

Maybe what his biographer said about the man “at his death, the loss was incalculable"” also applies to his work.
The chapter also tells the story of the rediscovery of one of the few Leonardo paintings in existence, his Saint Jerome.


This is a preview of the chapter about the loss of up to 80% of Leonardo da Vinci's books and works on paper, from the book Lost Treasures.