Da Vinci & the Deluge

April 15: Leonardo da Vinci was born on this day in 1452. Jean Paul Richter’s 1883 edition of The Literary Works of Leonardo (later, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci) was the first systematic presentation of the copious, scattered, and demanding manuscripts which the great Renaissance thinker left behind. In his Introduction, Richter describes the editorial obstacles that had to be overcome: da Vinci’s scrawling, backward (i.e. right to left) writing; his habit of breaking long words in pieces, and of neglecting to punctuate; his casual approach to numbering the 5,000 loose-leaf pages; his detailed and overflowing genius, so that “on one and the same page, observations on the most dissimilar subjects follow each other without any connection”:

A page, for instance, will begin with some principles of astronomy, or the motion of the earth; then come the laws of sound, and finally some precepts as to colour. Another page will begin with his investigations on the structure of the intestines, and end with philosophical remarks as to the relations of poetry to painting….

Even when browsing da Vinci’s genius in edited and arranged format, one constantly stumbles upon the unexpected. In the following excerpt from “To Represent the Deluge,” one entry in the section titled “Suggestions for Compositions,” we get the impression of the artist being vividly present in the flood’s aftermath while simultaneously dictating instruction in how to render it:

…you might have seen on many of the hill-tops terrified animals of different kinds, collected together and subdued to tameness, in company with men and women who had fled there with their children. The waters which covered the fields, with their waves were in great part strewn with tables, bedsteads, boats and various other contrivances made from necessity…. Ah! what dreadful noises were heard in the air rent by the fury of the thunder and the lightnings it flashed forth, which darted from the clouds dealing ruin and striking all that opposed its course. Ah! how many you might have seen closing their ears with their hands to shut out the tremendous sounds made in the darkened air…. Ah! how many laments! and how many in their terror flung themselves from the rocks! Huge branches of great oaks loaded with men were seen borne through the air….

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.