Leonardo & the Madrid Codices

Great Britain - Leonardo da Vinci 2019-11 (2019)
Great Britain – Leonardo da Vinci 2019-11 (2019) A design for an equestrian monument

On February 13, 1967, American researchers discovered the Madrid Codices by Leonardo da Vinci in the Biblioteca Nacional de España (National Library of Spain) in Madrid. The Madrid Codices I–II (I – Ms. 8937 i II – Ms. 8936) are two manuscripts discovered by Dr. Jules Piccus, Language Professor at the University of Massachusetts. The Madrid Codices I was finished during 1490 and 1499, and II from 1503 to 1505. The two codices were brought to Spain by Pompeo Leoni, a sculptor in the court of Philip II. After various changes of ownership, they were transferred to the monastic library of El Escorial and finally to the Biblioteca Real, where they remained unknown for 252 years.

The two volumes, containing 197 pages, are bound in red leather. Topics discussed include mechanics, statics, geometry and construction of fortifications. There is a list of 116 books Leonardo was using at the time, including some basic Latin grammar books. The text is written in Italian dialect with some errors. The manuscripts are of great importance as they contain about 15% of Leonardo’s notes referenced today, but are also important for the quality and relevance of the works they contain, which are among the major engineering treatises of their time.

Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci by Francesco Melzo -- red chalk on paper, after 1510.
Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci by Francesco Melzo — red chalk on paper, after 1510.

When making my initial list for possible A Stamp A Day topics, I found the Codices interesting but nearly passed it by due to not having any appropriate stamps to use. My only real option was an article about World Radio Day for which I do have several related stamps but the subject matter didn’t interest me at all. Perhaps next year. Luckily, I remembered that Great Britain is releasing a beautiful set today — February 13, 2019, — commemorating the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death (which occurred on May 2, 1519) portraying manuscript drawings by da Vinci from the collection of Queen Elizabeth II. While these were not contained within the Madrid Codices, they are extremely similar so I have decided to “cheat” a little. Although I pre-ordered the stamps, they have not arrived yet so the stamp images in this article are from Royal Mail promotional images. I will replace the images when the actual stamps arrive. I will also put together a more complete examination of da Vinci’s life for a future ASAD article on either his birth (April 15, 1452) or death anniversary, probably using another stamp from this set.

Briefly, Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci — more commonly Leonardo da Vinci or simply Leonardo — was an Italian polymath of the Renaissance whose areas of interest included invention, drawing, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography. He has been variously called the father of palaeontology, ichnology, and architecture, and he is widely considered one of the greatest painters of all time. Sometimes credited with the inventions of the parachute, helicopter, and tank, he epitomised the Renaissance humanist ideal.

The Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, ink and wash on paper circa 1492. Currently in the collections of Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice, Italy.
The Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, ink and wash on paper circa 1492. Currently in the collections of Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy.

Many historians and scholars regard Leonardo as the prime exemplar of the “Universal Genius” or “Renaissance Man”, an individual of “unquenchable curiosity” and “feverishly inventive imagination”, and he is widely considered one of the most diversely talented individuals ever to have lived. According to art historian Helen Gardner, the scope and depth of his interests were without precedent in recorded history, and “his mind and personality seem to us superhuman, while the man himself mysterious and remote”. Marco Rosci notes that, while there is much speculation regarding his life and personality, his view of the world was logical rather than mysterious, although the empirical methods he employed were unorthodox for his time.

Leonardo was born out of wedlock to notary Piero da Vinci and a peasant woman named Caterina in Vinci in the region of Florence, and he was educated in the studio of Florentine painter Andrea del Verrocchio. Much of his earlier working life was spent in the service of Ludovico il Moro in Milan. He later worked in Rome, Bologna, and Venice, and he spent his last years in France at the home awarded to him by Francis I of France.

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci (1498), Convent of Sta. Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy
The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci (1498), Convent of Sta. Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy

Leonardo is renowned primarily as a painter. The Mona Lisa is the most famous of his works and the most parodied portrait, and The Last Supper is the most reproduced religious painting of all time. His drawing of the Vitruvian Man is also regarded as a cultural icon, being reproduced on items as varied as the euro coin, textbooks, and T-shirts. His painting Salvator Mundi sold for $450.3 million at a Christie’s auction in New York on November 15, 2017, the highest price ever paid for a work of art. Perhaps 15 of his paintings have survived. Nevertheless, these few works compose a contribution to later generations of artists rivalled only by that of his contemporary Michelangelo, together with his notebooks, which contain drawings, scientific diagrams, and his thoughts on the nature of painting.

Mona Lisa or La Gioconda by Leonardo da Vinci, oil on poplar wood, 1503–1505/1507. Currently in the collection of the Louvre, Paris, France. Displayed in Salle des États.
Mona Lisa or La Gioconda by Leonardo da Vinci, oil on poplar wood, 1503–1505/1507. Currently in the collection of the Louvre, Paris, France. Displayed in Salle des États.

Leonardo is revered for his technological ingenuity. He conceptualized flying machines, a type of armored fighting vehicle, concentrated solar power, an adding machine, and the double hull. Relatively few of his designs were constructed or even feasible during his lifetime, as the modern scientific approaches to metallurgy and engineering were only in their infancy during the Renaissance. Some of his smaller inventions, however, entered the world of manufacturing unheralded, such as an automated bobbin winder and a machine for testing the tensile strength of wire. A number of his most practical inventions are displayed as working models at the Museum of Vinci. He made substantial discoveries in anatomy, civil engineering, geology, optics, and hydrodynamics, but he did not publish his findings and they had no direct influence on later science.

After Leonardo’s death the Madrid Codices were inherited by his friend Francesco Melzi. Over fifty years later Pompeo Leoni, a sculptor in the service of Philip II, purchased them from Melzi’s son Orazio and brought them to Spain. When he died in 1608, the manuscripts were transferred to Juan de Espina, a friend of Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas, portrayed at the time as: “a gentleman who lives alone in a mansion in Madrid and his servants are wooden automata.”

“Sketch of the Casting Pit for the Sforza Horse seen from above and the side” by Leonardo da Vinci, pen and ink on paper, circa 1493, fol. 149r from the Codex Madrid I. Currently in the collections of the National Gallery, London.

On a visit to Madrid in 1623, the future Charles I of England became interested in the manuscripts, but Juan de Espina refused to sell them. The Codices arrived at the Biblioteca Real in 1712, where for various reasons they remained lost until February 13, 1967. According to Martin Abad, manuscript manager for the library, their misplacement was “due to the transfer of the Biblioteca Real to four different locations, a fatal confusion of a signature and due as well to the aura of Da Vinci, which blinded many trying to attach their fame to that of the genius.”

Today, there are four facsimile editions of the Madrid Codices:

  1. Codex Madrid I (Ms. 8937) and Codex Madrid II (Ms. 8936) World Wide Emission.
  2. Codex Madrid I (Ms. 8937) “Treaty of statics and mechanics”, 192 folios with 384 pages. Internal format: 215 x 145 mm.
  3. Codex Madrid II (Ms. 8936) “Treaty of fortification, statics and geometry”. 158 folios with 316 pages. Internal format: 210 x 145 mm.
  4. The Madrid Codices. McGraw-Hill Inc, US, 1974. Five volumes, complete, with original manuscript, Italian and English translation.
Leonardo da Vinci’s “Codex on the Flight of Birds” The Codex shows some of Leonardo’s studies about aerodynamics and taxonomy. Photo taken by Bernice Bautista at the exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci y la idea de la belleza” (Leonardo and the idea of beauty) exhibit at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City on June 24, 2015. (AP Photo)
Leonardo da Vinci’s “Codex on the Flight of Birds” The Codex shows some of Leonardo’s studies about aerodynamics and taxonomy. Photo taken by Bernice Bautista at the exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci y la idea de la belleza” (Leonardo and the idea of beauty) exhibit at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City on June 24, 2015. (AP Photo)

Leonardo died at Clos Lucé, on May 2, 1519 at the age of 67. The cause is generally stated to be recurrent stroke; this diagnosis is consistent with accounts of the state of Leonardo’s alleged remains as described in 1863. Francis I had become a close friend. Vasari describes Leonardo as lamenting on his deathbed, full of repentance, that “he had offended against God and men by failing to practice his art as he should have done.” Vasari also records that the king held Leonardo’s head in his arms as he died, although this story, portrayed in romantic paintings by Ingres, Ménageot and other French artists, as well as by Angelica Kauffman, may be legend rather than fact. Vasari states that in his last days, Leonardo sent for a priest to make his confession and to receive the Holy Sacrament. In accordance with his will, sixty beggars followed his casket. Melzi was the principal heir and executor, receiving, as well as money, Leonardo’s paintings, tools, library and personal effects. Leonardo also remembered his other long-time pupil and companion, Salai, and his servant Battista di Vilussis, who each received half of Leonardo’s vineyards. His brothers received land, and his serving woman received a black cloak “of good stuff” with a fur edge. Leonardo da Vinci was buried in the Collegiate Church of Saint-Florentin in Château d’Amboise in France.

Leonardo’s remains were originally interred in the Collegiate Church of Saint-Florentin at the Château d’Amboise in the Loire Valley. However, following the church’s destruction in 1802, the whereabouts of Leonardo’s remains became subject to dispute. While excavating the site in 1863, the poet Arsène Houssaye found a partially-complete skeleton and stone fragments bearing the inscription EO […] DUS VINC. The unusually large skull led Houssaye to conclude he had located the remains of Leonardo, which were re-interred in their present location of the Chapel of Saint-Hubert, also at the Château d’Amboise. Reflecting doubts about the attribution, a plaque above the tomb states that the remains are only “presumed” to be those of Leonardo. In 2016, it was announced that DNA tests were to be conducted to investigate the veracity of the attribution, with results expected in 2019.

Double manuscript page on the Sforza monument from the Madrid Codices by Leonardo da Vinci, red chalk on paper circa 1493. Currently in the collections of the Biblioteca Nacional de España in Madrid, Spain.
Double manuscript page on the Sforza monument from the Madrid Codices by Leonardo da Vinci, red chalk on paper circa 1493. Currently in the collections of the Biblioteca Nacional de España in Madrid, Spain.

Fewer than 20 paintings by Leonardo survive, and nothing in sculpture or architecture. Because Leonardo hoarded thousands of his drawings and dozens of notebooks, many of which have been passed down through succeeding centuries, we have a detailed knowledge of the workings of his extraordinary mind. Queen Elizabeth II’s Royal Collection holds the greatest collection of Leonardo’s drawings in existence, housed in the Print Room at Windsor Castle. Because they have been protected from light, fire and flood, they are in almost pristine condition and allow us to see exactly what Leonardo intended – and to observe his hand and mind at work, after a span of five centuries. These drawings are among the greatest artistic treasures of the United Kingdom.

The Windsor collection was originally gathered by the sculptor Pompeo Leoni at the end of the sixteenth century, who included mostly Leonardo’s figurative studies. It is possible to distinguish different dominant themes. The clearest is that of anatomical drawings. There is also a conspicuous group of landscape drawings, a series of studies of horses (including studies for equestrian monuments), numerous drawings of figures and caricatures, as well as a group of geographical maps. The over 550 sheets in the Royal Collection were acquired in a single album by King Charles II around 1670.

Great Britain – Leonardo da Vinci (2019) prestige stamp book cover

Martin Clayton, Head of Prints and Drawings, Royal Collection Trust, said: “Alongside an ambitious program of 12 exhibitions around the UK, then exhibitions at The Queen’s Galleries in London and Edinburgh, we are thrilled to be working with Royal Mail on this special 12-stamp set, which invites everyone to join the celebration of Leonardo and his work in 2019.” The drawings featured on the stamps were chosen to coincide with the 12 exhibitions — “Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing” — taking place in 2019 across the UK with one drawing from each of the 12 exhibitions featured on a separate stamp.

The British set of Leonardo da Vinci stamps were released on February 13, 2019. Designed by Kate Stephens, they were printed by International Security Printers using offset lithography in a square format measuring 35 mm x 35 mm, perforated 14½ x 14½, in sheets of 30/60. The are all inscribed 1st, indicating the standard First Class mail rate. The issue is in conjunction with Royal Collection Trust, a department of the Royal Household, that is responsible for the care of the Royal Collection and manages the public opening of the official residences of The Queen. Income generated from admissions and from associated commercial activities contributes directly to The Royal Collection Trust, a registered charity. The aims of the Trust are the care and conservation of the collection, and the promotion of access and enjoyment through exhibitions, publications, loans and educational programmes. Royal Collection Trust’s work is undertaken without public funding of any kind.

The issuance of the set was first announced in early January 2019 with the designs being revealed on February 8. The Royal Mail Group press release gave details about each of the 12 stamps: 

Great Britain - Leonardo da Vinci 2019-01 (2019) The skull sectioned
Great Britain – Leonardo da Vinci 2019-01 (2019) The skull sectioned

The skull sectioned, 1489

Pen and ink

Ulster Museum, Belfast

Leonardo had little access to human material when he first started to study anatomy. But in 1489, he obtained a skull, which he cut in a variety of sections to study its structure. In this drawing, he shows the skull sawn down the middle, then across the front of the right side. This beautifully lucid presentation, with the two halves juxtaposed, allows the viewer to locate the facial cavities in relation to the surface features. Leonardo wished to determine the proportions of the skull and the paths of the sensory nerves, believing that they must converge at the site of the soul.

Great Britain – Leonardo da Vinci 2019-02 (2019) A sprig of guelder-rose

A sprig of guelder-rose, c.1506–12

Red chalk on orange-red prepared paper

Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens

A beautifully rendered study of guelder-rose (Viburnum opulus) has been drawn in red chalk on paper rubbed all over with powdered red chalk. Although it may be connected with Leonardo’s Leda and the Swan, it is far more detailed than necessary as a study for a painting; indeed, it surpasses anything found in contemporary herbals. The leaves are shown curling and sagging, for Leonardo was interested not merely in their shape but also in their living form when subject to the natural forces of growth and gravity.

Great Britain – Leonardo da Vinci 2019-03 (2019) Studies of cats

Studies of cats, c.1517–18

Pen and ink

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Leonardo’s studies of sleeping cats are among his most sensitively observed drawings and must have been done directly from life. His appreciation of the animals’ lithe forms had a scientific basis, for elsewhere on the sheet he wrote: “Of flexion and extension. The lion is the prince of this animal species, because of the flexibility of its spine.” This suggests that the drawings were made in connection with Leonardo’s proposed treatise on “the movements of animals with four feet, among which is man, who likewise in his infancy crawls on all fours”.

Great Britain – Leonardo da Vinci 2019-04 (2019) A Star-of-Bethlehem and other plants

A star-of-Bethlehem and other plants, c.1506–12

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

Glasgow

Leonardo drew plants and flowers as studies for decorative details in his paintings and probably also in the process of working towards a systematic treatise on the growth of plants and trees. His finest botanical drawings were executed for his painting Leda and the Swan, which was to have a foreground teeming with plants and flowers, thus echoing the fertility inherent in that myth. The focus of this drawing is a clump of star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum), whose swirling leaves are seen in studies for, and copies of, the lost painting.

Great Britain – Leonardo da Vinci 2019-05 (2019) The anatomy of the shoulder and foot

The anatomy of the shoulder and foot, c.1510–11

Pen and ink with wash

Southampton City Art Gallery

Leonardo was fascinated by the mechanism of the shoulder and by how the arrangement of muscles and bones allowed such a wide range of movement. Here he analyses the shoulder and arm in a series of drawings at progressive states of dissection. He begins at upper right with the muscles intact and then lifts away individual muscles, such as the deltoid and biceps, to reveal the structures below. At lower right, Leonardo demonstrates the articulation of the ankle with the tibia and fibula lifted away from the foot.

Great Britain – Leonardo da Vinci 2019-06 (2019) The head of Leda

The head of Leda, c.1505–08

Pen and ink over black chalk

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Over the last 15 years of his life, Leonardo worked on a painting of the myth of Leda, showing the queen of Sparta seduced by the god Jupiter in the guise of a swan. The painting was the highest valued item in Leonardo’s estate at his death; it later entered the French royal collection but was apparently destroyed around 1700. In this sketch, Leonardo expended little effort on Leda’s demure downward glance, devoting his attention instead to the most complicated of hairstyles – throughout his life he had a love of personal adornment in both hair and clothes.

Great Britain – Leonardo da Vinci 2019-07 (2019) The head of a bearded man

The head of a bearded man, c.1517–18

Black chalk

Derby Museum and Art Gallery

Leonardo was fascinated by the male profile, both the divinely beautiful and the hideously grotesque. Such heads are found throughout his work, from paintings such as The Last Supper to quick doodles in the margins of his drawings. Towards the end of his life, Leonardo made many carefully finished drawings of classical profiles, exercises in form and draughtsmanship simply for his own satisfaction. Their features – such as the dense mat of curly hair seen here – were inspired by ancient coins and medals of Roman emperors.

Great Britain – Leonardo da Vinci 2019-08 (2019) The skeleton

The skeleton, c.1510–11

Pen and ink with wash

Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales, Cardiff

Leonardo’s most brilliant anatomical studies were conducted in the winter of 1510–11, when he was apparently working in the medical school of the university of Pavia, near Milan. He may have dissected up to 20 human bodies at that time, concentrating on the mechanisms of the bones and muscles. This is his most complete representation of a skeleton, seen from front, side and back in the manner of an architectural drawing. Leonardo aimed to compile an illustrated treatise on human anatomy, but his studies remained unpublished at his death.

Great Britain – Leonardo da Vinci 2019-09 (2019) The head of St. Philip

The head of St Philip, c.1495

Black chalk

Millennium Gallery, Sheffield

Leonardo’s greatest completed work was The Last Supper, painted in the refectory of the monastic church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan and now in a ruined state. The mural shows the reaction of the disciples to Christ’s announcement of his imminent betrayal. Few drawings survive of the hundreds that must have been made. This study for the head of St Philip, leaning towards Christ in devotion and despair, was probably based on a live model, but Leonardo has idealised the features, taking them out of the real world and into the divine.

Great Britain – Leonardo da Vinci 2019-10 (2019) A woman in a landscape

A woman in a landscape, c.1517–18

Black chalk

Manchester Art Gallery

Two of Leonardo’s favourite devices – a mysterious smile and a pointing hand – are combined in this ethereal drawing. It shows a woman standing in a rocky, watery landscape, smiling at us while gesturing into the distance, her arms gathering her drapery to her breast. The most plausible explanation is that this is the maiden Matelda gathering flowers, as she appears to Dante on the far side of a stream in Purgatory, the second book of his Divine Comedy. However, the purpose of the drawing is unknown.

Great Britain - Leonardo da Vinci 2019-11 (2019)
Great Britain – Leonardo da Vinci 2019-11 (2019) A design for an equestrian monument

A design for an equestrian monument, c.1485–88

Silverpoint on blue prepared paper

Leeds Art Gallery

Ludovico Sforza, ruler of Milan, commissioned Leonardo to execute a bronze equestrian monument, well over life size, to his father, Francesco. Leonardo’s early studies show Francesco on a rearing horse over a fallen foe. Over the next five years, Leonardo built a full-sized clay model of the horse and prepared a mould for the casting – a huge technical challenge. But in 1494, Ludovico requisitioned the 75 tonnes of bronze for the cast to make cannon, and the monument was never finished. Invading French troops used the clay model for target practice, destroying it.

Royal Mail promotional ad for the 2019 Leonardo da Vinci stamps

I chose this particular stamp as today’s feature because the Madrid Codices include a sketch of Leonardo’s casting pit for the equestrian monument (fol. 149r from the Codex Madrid I). The sketch used on the stamp was also the main image on Royal Mail’s promotional material used when announcing the desigs earlier this month. Leonardo’s Horse (also known as Gran Cavallo) was a sculpture that was commissioned in 1482 and was intended to be the largest equestrian statue in the world, a monument to the Duke of Milan’s father Francesco. Leonardo did extensive preparatory work for it, but produced only a clay model, which was destroyed by French soldiers when they invaded Milan in 1499, interrupting the project. About five centuries later, Leonardo’s surviving design materials were used as the basis for sculptures intended to bring the project to fruition.

Great Britain – Leonardo da Vinci 2019-12 (2019) The fall of light on a face

The fall of light on a face, c.1488

Pen and ink

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

During the 1480s, Leonardo began to assemble material towards a treatise on the theory of painting. His own paintings, such as the Mona Lisa, were noted even in his own day for their sophisticated treatment of shadows, and here he sets out the geometrical principles of light and shade. The diagram and notes (in mirror writing) explain that where the light falls at right angles on the face, the face will be most strongly illuminated; where it falls at a shallow angle, the face will be less strongly lit; and where no light is received, under the nose and chin, the surface will be completely dark.

Pane of four stamps from the Great Britain Leonardo da Vinci prestige stamp book, released February 13, 2019
Pane of four stamps from the Great Britain Leonardo da Vinci prestige stamp book, released February 13, 2019
Pane of Machin definitive stamps from the Great Britain Leonardo da Vinci prestige stamp book, 2019

In addition to the 12 stamps described above, Royal Mail issued a prestige book (PSB) containing three booklet panes, each with four of the 12 stamps set against backgrounds featuring examples of his drawings and paintings, including The Last Supper. A fourth pane contains definitives consisting of 2 x 5p, 4 x 10p and 2 x £1.55,  year-coded M18L, making two sets for Machin collectors. According to Royal Mail, the definitives are printed “in colors that beautifully complement the drawings and paintings in the book.” The pane also includes a self-portrait in the center. The book contains a short biography of Leonardo and lists the UK galleries and museums where each of the featured drawings will be displayed between February and May 2019.

The dates of the exhibitions are as follow:

  • Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing (February 1 – May 6, 2019) — Exhibitions at 12 UK venues
  • Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing (May 24 – October 13, 2019) — Exhibition of over 200 drawings at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London
  • Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing (November 22, 2019 – March 15, 2020) — Exhibition of 80 drawings atThe Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh

For more information please visit www.rct.uk/leonardo500.

The following images of first day covers of the 2019 Leonardo da Vinci stamp set are sourced from active eBay auctions and not currently in my collection:







Great Britain – Leonardo da Vinci (2019) first day covers of the sheet stamps and prestige stamp book panes [NIMC2019] images sourced from active eBay auctions
Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519

Flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland



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