Digital Da Vinci Codes: Thousands of Leonardo’s Papers Go Online

Leonardian library, Tuscany
by Nicole Martinelli

The tiny brick library in Leonardo Da Vinci’s hometown is putting 3,000 pages of the genius’ work online in a high-resolution, searchable archive.

The Leonardian Library in Vinci, Tuscany, is making the Madrid Codices and the Codex Atlanticus — two collections of scientific and technical drawings — available as a free digital archive called e-Leo.

The EU-financed project will also digitize the Windsor folios and 12 notebooks from the Institut de France for a total of 12,000 pages, creating the most extensive public online archive of Leonardo’s codes.

It’s a powerful resource for amateurs — Renaissance groupies, crowdsourcers looking for technical solutions — who make half of all requests to the library in the hamlet where Leonardo was born.

E-Leo won’t be putting lone librarian Monica Taddei out of a job anytime soon, though.

Taddei often navigates the texts for experts in technical fields looking for sketches of things like valves or siphons. The Madrid Codices are especially fertile for designs.

Alas, e-Leo is not quite ready for Dan Brown buffs or 8th-grade homework assignments.

While the digital notebooks offer advantages to make academics sob with joy — semantic search functions, clustered results — most of them vanish without a working knowledge of 15th-century Italian. (Forms in English are expected in about two months; an index of drawings in English is expected by year’s end.)

To index Leonardo’s designs and irregular vocabulary, text-mining company Synthema teamed up with engineers from the University of Florence and the Accademia della Crusca, Italy’s national language institute founded in 1582.

“Leonardo had a very modern way of jumbling things together, a true multitasker,” says Federico Neri, head of R&D at Synthema. “There are technical specifications next to shopping lists. Finding anything used to be mining in a literal sense.” Neri hopes to eventually develop a multilanguage version to help readers explore the notebooks.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of curiosities for the lay reader.

Even a quick spin may turn up, as it did on a recent once-over of the Codex Atlanticus, the spring-propelled vehicle thought to be a precursor to Mars rovers. And the high-resolution images are arguably as close as one will get to the real thing unless you’re Bill Gates.

There are references to a sketch in the Codex Atlanticus showing the backside of Leonardo’s comely assistant, Salaino, with penises speeding at him. When an e-Leo user’s attempts to find it fail, Taddei recites a folio number from memory with the cool aplomb of a professional used to stewarding odd requests.

Punching it in brings up a crude drawing in a childish hand, clearly not Leonardo’s.

“I’m afraid that’s the one, though it’s not what you’d expect,” Taddei says. “Hang on though.”

The librarian taps in some more numbers then goes off to check a reference in a book.

“Here’s what you want: Try 674r.”

The image takes a few seconds to load, but at the center of the page is a small, anatomical sketch of a young man’s privates and a peachy bum.

Worth the effort after all.

Image courtesy Biblioteca Leonardiana. Story originally appeared on Wired.

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