Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Forster number I at The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Welcome to “Art, Culture & Books” with me Anthony King. Today I’ll be taking you on a video and photographic tour of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, Codex Forster number I from 1505 which is at The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519), renowned globally for iconic works like the Mona Lisa, is equally celebrated for his notebooks documenting thoughts and inventions. The V&A collection houses five such intriguing notebooks, forming the Codex Forster, gifted to the Museum in 1876 by John Forster. These volumes, dating from approximately 1487 to 1505, offer insights into Leonardo’s deeply curious mind.

The V&A’s collection comprises three codices named the Forster Codices, with no discernible logical order. Bequeathed by John Forster, only Codex Forster I indicates its creation date among the five notebooks.

Codex Forster I encompasses the museum’s earliest and latest notebooks, spanning from around 1487 – 90 in Milan to 1505 in Florence. Written in Leonardo’s distinct mirror writing, the subjects explored range from hydraulic engineering to a treatise on measuring solids.

These notebooks feature meticulous sketches and diagrams, accompanied by notes in 16th-century Italian mirror writing—a script that reads in reverse and from right to left. The motive behind Leonardo’s use of mirror writing remains speculative; some suggest a desire for exclusivity, while others attribute it to his left-handedness. Notably, the deciphering of Leonardo’s mirror writing becomes easier with familiarity, we are told.

It is likely that Leonardo initially worked on loose sheets, later compiled into booklets and subsequently bound. The mirror writing, though intriguing, reflects a methodical approach rather than an esoteric one.