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Leonardo: the Codex Leicester

13 June to 12 August 2007

The Codex Leicester is an autograph manuscript by da Vinci, arguably the greatest artist and thinker of all time, containing his observations on the nature and property of water as well as other aspects of science and technology. It is widely regarded as one of the most important of Leonardo’s scientific notebooks. The only autograph manuscript by Leonardo in private hands, the Codex travels to one country every year and will be displayed only at the Chester Beatty Library during its stay in Ireland. The manuscript has never been displayed in Ireland and is unlikely to return in the foreseeable future.

The Codex Leicester was composed around 1508-1510 and comprises eighteen loose double sheets of paper in which Leonardo illustrated and wrote down ideas and observations in his distinctive mirror script.  Written in Italian, the manuscript is illustrated with over 300 pen and ink drawings, sketches and diagrams. The exhibition offers an in-depth view of the scientific thinking of one of the greatest geniuses in the history of the western world. While Leonardo is best known as an artist - the man who painted the Mona Lisa - he actually spent more time on scientific projects than on painting. Born in Vinci in Tuscany in 1452, Leonardo da Vinci was an engineer, architect, designer, inventor, scientist, painter and sculptor. He died at the age of 67 in 1519 at the castle of Cloux and was buried in the cloister of the church Saint-Florentin at Amboise.

The Codex was acquired by Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester (1698-1759), in 1717 and owned by him and his descendants for more than two centuries.  In 1980, the notebook was purchased by Armand Hammer, who named it the Codex Hammer. In 1994 it was acquired by its current owners, making it the only autograph manuscript by Leonardo in private hands. The name of Codex Leicester was restored to the notebook in July 1995.

Water is the central theme of the Codex Leicester, which also presents Leonardo’s notes on subjects ranging from astronomy to atmosphere and meteorology, from physical geology and palaeontology, and from hydraulics to canalization. These provide substantial evidence for the study of Leonardo’s approach to science and technology, especially his understanding of the effects produced by moving water on the earth and in the sky. The notebook includes practical inventions, such as designs for strengthening bridges and for flood control, a number of which were used in Leonardo’s time and are still in use today. The Codex Leicester also contributes to a deeper understanding of Leonardo’s art, in that the Mona Lisa and other late paintings offer a visual synthesis of the artist’s scientific knowledge as summed up in the Codex.

The Codex is the centrepiece of the Chester Beatty Library’s exhibition which brings together material relating to the intellectual background of Leonardo’s time. The Library’s own collection provides manuscripts of Arabic science, some dating as far back as the late ninth century, which are of great significance as they transmitted to the western world the fruits of the learning of the classical world. The exhibition also features material from the Edward Worth Library in Dr Steeven’s Hospital in Dublin. This is the first time ever that books collected by the distinguished Dublin physician Edward Worth have been loaned for exhibition. Additional material comes from Trinity College, Dublin, the Library of the University of Cambridge and Museum of the History of Science in the University of Oxford.

Such is the importance of this exhibition that the Chester Beatty Library undertook a major renovation of one of its galleries to provide the very best conditions for the display of the masterpiece. To conserve the delicate manuscript, the pages of the Codex are displayed in a climate-controlled atmosphere, in special cases that strictly regulate the duration and intensity of potentially damaging light exposure on the manuscript. To simultaneously safeguard the Codex and offer visitors the extraordinary experience of seeing Leonardo da Vinci's actual notebook, not all of its pages are fully illuminated at any one time.