How a UMass Professor Discovered Da Vinci’s Lost Works

In ‘This Week in History,’ we follow the dissemination of da Vinci’s manuscripts, how two became ‘lost,’ and how an American professor found them in Madrid.
How a UMass Professor Discovered Da Vinci’s Lost Works
Double manuscript page on the Sforza monument from the Madrid Codices, a long misplaced manuscript by Leonardo da Vinci. (Public Domain)
Dustin Bass
2/10/2024
Updated:
2/10/2024
0:00

It’s doubtful that the private thoughts and curiosities of Leonardo da Vinci would have survived without the diligent preservation efforts of his favorite pupil, Francesco Melzi. When da Vinci died in 1519, all of his manuscripts―or as da Vinci called them, “a collection without order”―were left to Melzi.

Francesco Melzi, disciple of Leonardo da Vinci, 1510-1511, by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. (Public Domain)
Francesco Melzi, disciple of Leonardo da Vinci, 1510-1511, by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. (Public Domain)

Melzi is considered part of the Leonardeschi―artists who were influenced by da Vinci and practiced many of the master’s artistic methods. In fact, some of Melzi’s works were long thought to be by da Vinci. When Melzi died in 1570, the da Vinci manuscripts were dispersed by his son, Orazio, who clearly did not hold da Vinci’s manuscripts in the same regard. Thirteen manuscripts were stolen by Lelio Gavardi, who had been a tutor in the Melzi house. Gavardi was convinced to return them.

Orazio announced that he was in possession of many of da Vinci’s manuscripts, as well as loose and disparate pages of the master’s writings, ideas, and sketches. This information alerted numerous suitors who vied for ownership. A prominent Italian sculptor, Pompeo Leoni, met Orazio and secured seven manuscripts. He later secured more works.

The Codex Atlanticus, 17th century, assembled by Pompeo Leoni. (Public Domain)
The Codex Atlanticus, 17th century, assembled by Pompeo Leoni. (Public Domain)
From his collection, Leoni assembled the famous Codex Atlanticus, now known as the largest collection of da Vinci’s drawings and writings. It’s believed that Leoni’s collection became quite vast and included Manuscripts A, B, D, E, F, G, H, I, L, and M; the manuscript on the Flight of Birds; the Codices Ashburnham; Codex Trivulzianus; the aforementioned Codex Atlanticus; Windsor Manuscripts; Codex Arundel; and Codex Madrid I and II.

Spain and the Manuscripts

Leoni, who had become a favorite sculptor of the Spanish nobility, died in Madrid in October of 1608. His 13 manuscript da Vinci collection went to his son-in-law, Polidoro Calchi. After 1608, the trail of the master’s works becomes difficult to follow. It is known that the Codex Atlanticus was gifted to the Ambrosian Library in Milan, which opened in 1609. Leoni’s other da Vinci works, however, were handed down from place to place and person to person over the centuries.

A century later in Madrid, King Philip V approved the creation of the Royal Library of Spain. It would be completed in 1712.

Leoni had actually offered the Codex Madrid I and II to King Philip II in 1590. The king declined to purchase them, but they would eventually make it into the library of Spain’s monarchy. While most of Leoni’s 13 manuscripts meandered their way to the Royal Collection in England―purchased by King George III for 20,000 pounds ($6.5 million today)―these two remained in the City of Madrid. The Madrid Codices, which contain 700 pages, discuss theoretical mechanics, maps of the Tuscan region, military architecture, painting notes, plans for an equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza (which was never made), and a long list of book titles he was using as references for his studies. The notes cover a 15-year period from 1491 to 1505, which many consider to be the height of Leonardo’s creativity.

A portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, 1516, by Francesco Melzi. (Public Domain)
A portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, 1516, by Francesco Melzi. (Public Domain)

Misplacing Da Vinci’s Work

Although the Madrid Codices remained in their city’s namesake, they had moved from Calchi to one of Spain’s great collectors, Juan de Espina. Upon his death in 1642―150 years after Christopher Columbus left Spain in search of a new route to the Indies, which would result in the discovery of the American continent―Espina left the works to Spain’s King Philip IV. They would remain in the monarchical library for nearly 200 years until 1830 when they were removed to the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid (National Library of Spain).

The Codex Madrid I and II were now safely preserved within the massive library. A simple cataloging error, however, would have these two important works of da Vinci lost for nearly 150 years. It became apparent that the works were misplaced when a Florentine professor requested the codices in 1898, but they could not be located.

In the middle of the 20th century, two American da Vinci scholars, Ladislao Reti of University of California in Los Angeles and Jules Piccus of the University of Massachusetts, could hardly have expected their greatest contribution to the study of da Vinci was to be by mere happenstance.

A Historical Find

Reti, who authored and edited several works on da Vinci, had long voiced his concern that most of da Vinci’s works were missing. While researching at the National Library of Spain on the works of Juanelo Turriano, the 16th-century mathematician and engineer, he actually instigated a search within the Madrid library in 1964. That search resulted in no findings.
A few years after that fruitless search, Piccus found himself working at the Spanish library. He was researching medieval “cancioneros,” which are Spanish or Portuguese collections of songs and poetry. While conducting his research, Piccus noticed a numerical gap in the library’s catalog and therefore requested those missing items be found and brought to him. When the catalog cart arrived, little did Piccus, or those in the library, know that they had just presented him with the missing Madrid Codices. It was during this week in history, Feb. 13, 1967, that the American professor in Spain discovered the Italian master’s Madrid Codices.

Bringing Back Reti

When Piccus realized what he had received, he informed the library. Upon this information, Reti was contacted by Rev. José López de Toro, the library’s vice director and head of the manuscripts department, and requested to return to authenticate the materials. Reti confirmed that the long-misplaced Madrid Codices had been found where they had been suspected to be all along.
Leonardo's design for a giant crossbow from the Codex Atanticus. (Public Domain)
Leonardo's design for a giant crossbow from the Codex Atanticus. (Public Domain)

In October of 1967, Reti published his first scholarly account of the findings, entitled, “The Leonardo da Vinci Codices in the Biblioteca Nacional of Madrid.” The American publisher, McGraw-Hill, won the bid to publish the Madrid Codices at a cost of $2 million, and Reti was appointed as translator. Part of the five-volume set includes Reti’s commentary on the codices.

Reti was awarded the Leonardo da Vinci Medal by the Society for the History of Technology. The medal was presented to him on Dec. 29, 1972, during the annual banquet for the Society for the History of Technology and the History of Science Society in Washington. Sadly, the following year, Reti was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

McGraw-Hill published the work in the fall of 1974, but Reti had already died. Piccus, the professor who incidentally discovered the long-lost da Vinci works, lived another 30 years after the discovery.

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Dustin Bass is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast. He also writes two weekly series for The Epoch Times: Profiles in History and This Week in History.