Da Vinci's Notebook Sold For $5.1 Million: Here's What's In It

By Jacob Shelton

Aside from painting the Mona Lisa and designing a hang glider, what do you know about Leonardo Da Vinci? Throughout his life, the Italian artist and inventor kept detailed notes in a series of notebooks, the most desired of which is the only notebook that's ever been sold privately: the "Codex Leicester." This fascinating work of art provides unique insight into Da Vinci's creative genius as well as his startlingly inventive nature. Da Vinci's notebook sold for a record-setting price in 1980, and it's only been topping it ever since.

The "Codex Leicester" dates back to the 1500s

Source: Wikimedia

Written around 1508, the "Codex Leicester" is one of many notebooks put together by Da Vinci around that time. Initially, it was merely a loose collection of about 300 detailed notes and drawings, many of them dealing with water and (no joke) whether or not the Moon was mostly liquid. It's not clear when Da Vinci's jumble of scattered pages were folded into booklets, but it's believed that Spanish sculptor Pompeo Leoni had something to do with its preservation toward the end of the 1500s.

From page to page, Da Vinci's work in the "Codex" changes from thoughts on science to drawings of machines to the inventor's theories. After the pages were bound, the notebook was named the "Codex Leicester" when it was owned by Earl of Leicester in 1719. 

The "Codex" was nearly lost to history

Source: Reddit

Da Vinci's most desired notebook nearly didn’t see the 20th century. After it was bound, the "Codex" was stashed away and forgotten until 1690, when painter Giuseppi Ghezzi found it in a chest full of papers belonging to 16th-century Milanese sculptor Guglielmo della Porto. About 30 years later, it was purchased by Thomas Coke, the first earl of Leicester.

Da Vinci wrote his notes backwards

Source: Open Culture

Da Vinci took great pains to make his notes difficult to read. He wrote them in what's been dubbed "mirror writing," and to make things even more confusing, they were written from right to left (though that last part was likely more of a result of Da Vinci's left-handedness than his paranoia). Inside the notebook are drawings for early versions of the helicopter, parachute, and even a submarine, as well as Da Vinci's theories about why fossils are found in mountains and why the Moon is so shimmery. He believed that the lunar surface reflected light from the Sun because it was covered in a thin layer of water, naming the phenomenon "planetshine" 100 years prior to German astronomer Johannes Kepler proving this theory.

The notebook is full of half-finished ideas

Source: Open Culture

It's inarguable that Da Vinci was a genius, but his ideas didn't pop out of his head fully formed. The "Codex Leicester" shows how the Italian genius worked ideas out on paper in an attempt to better understand the universe around him. While speaking about the notebook to Business Insider, art curator Alex Bortolot explained:

It's not a simple document that records his thought processes; it is a very messy document in which he develops his ideas.

In some ways, the "Codex Leicester" is more interesting for being a collection of half-baked ideas. We already have museums full of Da Vinci's end products; his notebook, on the other hand, shows us his process.

It's not clear when it was written, but we have some ideas

Source: Hammer Codex

One thing that sets the "Codex" apart from the rest of Da Vinci’s notebook is the lack of dates placed on the pages, but clever research has given us some clues about when it was written. He wrote about an earthquake that occurred in the sea of Satalia near Rodi in 1489, and he also mentions being in Florence, which is where he spent much of his time between 1504 and 1506. It's most likely that the notebook was written over the course of several years, throughout the artist's travels across Italy, about 10 years before his death. At the time, Da Vinci was more existentially contemplative than he'd been throughout much of his life, and he was trying to get to the bottom of some of the Earth's most fascinating mysteries. 

Armand Hammer bought the "Codex" for just over $5 million

Source: Open Culture

On December 12, 1980, the "Codex" sold in an auction that left heads spinning in the art world. When the dust settled, it was sold to oil tycoon Armand Hammer for $5,126,000. That may seem like a high price to most of us, but it was nothing to the Hammer, especially considering what he got for it. He said:

I’m very happy with the price. I expected to pay more. There is no work of art in the world I wanted more than this.

After the notebook was placed in Hammer's collection, he changed its name to the "Hammer Codex," having become accustomed to naming things after himself. After he passed away, he left the notebook to the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The notebook was sold to Bill Gates after Hammer passed

Source: Open Culture

When the "Codex" went up for sale in 1994, it was once again a hot commodity. On November 11, 1994, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates bought the notebook at a record price of $30.8 million. Gates could have changed the notebook's name to the "Gates Codex" and hidden it away in his secret catacombs underneath Seattle, but instead, he restored the title of the journal to the "Leicester Codex" before loaning it out to various museums to display.

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.