Leonardo’s Sketches and Writing

Since Leonardo da Vinci was a perfectionist, he manages to complete only a few paintings during his career. In contrast, there are many drawings and sketches from Leonardo’s notebook that exist today. These sketches and studies of human anatomy are proof that the artist was a “Renaissance man” – not only was he interested in the arts, but he was also studied anatomy and physiognomy (among other scientific things). In truth, Leonardo felt that the scientific study of anatomy and nature was related to art. Leonardo held the “conviction that the artist must understand the deepest causes of motion and emotion if he is to create figures that can function adequately as imitations of nature.”1

Drawings such as The Fetus and Lining of the Uterus (c. 1511-1513, shown above) are important today because they established a precendent for scientific illustration, particularly with Leonardo’s use of cutaway views.

However, the thing I find fascinating about Leonardo’s notebook is actually not the sketches themselves, but the combination of his sketches and writing. Da Vinci usually made backwards annotations in his notebook. Art historian Michael Ann Holly suggested that Leonardo’s writing allows for an interesting interplay between the words and the text. Since the Western eye moves from left to right (particularly while reading, but Holly also suggests that this can happen while looking at images), then the eye will move back across the notebook page (from right to left) when proceeding from the image to Leonardo’s handwriting. Therefore, Holly suggests that the eye to moves back and forth across the page because “Leonardo’s words and images scroll together in a vortex of unfolding mobility.”2 She also finds that since Leonardo is writing backwards, there is no competition between words and images. Words “unwrap unto pictures, only to be metamorphosed back again at the other end of the line.”3

I think this is such an interesting interpretation of Leonardo’s backwards writing. As far as I know, this is the only article that offers an art historical interpretation of these strange annotations. Does anyone know of any other articles?

What do you think of Leonardo’s sketches and backwards writing? Do you like Holly’s interpretation?

1 Martin Kemp. “Leonardo da Vinci.” In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/subscriber/article/grove/art/T050401, accessed February 28, 2009).

2 Michael Ann Holly, “Writing Leonardo Backwards,” New Literary History 23, no. 1 (Winter, 1992): 175. It should be noted that this article actually is not about Leonardo; Holly uses Leonardo as an allegory for discussing historical consciousness in the late 20th century.

3 Ibid.

  • Emilee . . . says:

    I actually knew that the writing on Leonardo’s journals was backwards — can you believe I knew something on my own!? Amazing! ;-)

    Of course I’m untrained when it comes to all of this, but I don’t know if I agree or disagree with what Holly said. To me, when I look at his journal, I instantly see his drawings. I’m amazed at how beautiful they look and how accurate the details are. Really, the last thing I notice is what he’s written or if it’s backwards. Maybe if I knew the language and could read it, it would be different, but (for me) unless you KNOW the words are backwards, you don’t notice it much.

  • M says:

    Yeah, because the letters are backwards and therefore illegible, people don’t really pay attention to them. I think that ties into what Holly means when she says that the words and drawings don’t “compete” for attention.

    And you’re totally right, because the words are in Italian, English speakers pay even less attention to them. I wonder if Holly took that into consideration. Maybe Italian speakers pay more attention to the backwards words, since they would understand them after deciphering?


This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.