A Dozen Drawings From Leonardo da Vinci’s 1,200-Page ‘Codex Atlanticus’ Will Go on View in the U.S. for the First Time

Leonardo's drawings helped inspire modern excavating machines, diving mechanisms, and autonomous vehicles.

Francesco Melzi, Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. ⓒ Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana/Mondadori Portfolio.

A dozen drawings by Leonardo da Vinci will be on view in the U.S. for the first time in a show opening this summer in Washington, D.C. They come from the Codex Atlanticus, the largest collection of drawings and writings in Italian by the legendary polymath, which stretches across some 1,200 pages over 12 volumes.  

Leonardo maintained the Codex Atlanticus from 1478 to 1519, the year of his death, and it has been held in Milan’s Biblioteca Ambrosiana since 1637.

An array of subjects are included in the collection, such as botany, flight, mathematics, musical instruments, and weaponry. Engineers and designers have found rich material for their work in its pages. Art historian and Leonardo expert Carlo Pedretti dubbed the codex, which spans the artist’s entire career, the most important of the master’s manuscripts. 

Leonardo da Vinci, Hydraulic pump and fountain within a building. ⓒ Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana/Mondadori Portfolio.

“Imagining the Future—Leonardo da Vinci: In the Mind of an Italian Genius” opens June 21 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, in Washington, D.C. 

Indicating Leonardo’s great ambition, one drawing explores the concept of perpetual motion without an external energy source, along with imaginative architectural studies. Another sheet testifies to the artist’s interest in underwater exploration, showing concepts for diving machines as well as water pumps. Another contains detailed diagrams and calculations exploring mathematical principles, such as the golden ratio, in their application to art and architecture.

Some drawings in the show can be tied to modern mechanisms, the organizers point out: Leonardo’s study for a digging machine provided inspiration for the excavating machines of today; his design for a self-propelling cart has echoes in our self-driving vehicles; and his diving apparatus influenced underwater exploration.


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