History of “Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds”
The death of Leonardo da Vinci in 1519 was the beginning of an odyssey that would bring the “Codex on the Flight of Birds” to the Biblioteca Reale in Turin, Italy, more than four centuries later. Along the way it would be in the possession of at least 10 individuals and pass through as many as nine locations, including the remote Siberian border.
Da Vinci bequeathed all his manuscripts to his pupil and trusted friend, Francesco Melzi. Melzi transferred the manuscripts he inherited from da Vinci to his house at Vaprio d’Adda, outside Milan, where he cared for them until his death in 1570. Melzi’s heirs were not as conscientious or scrupulous as he, and after a few years they allowed the collection of da Vinci treasures to be split up. Given away, stolen and sold as complete codices or singles pages, da Vinci’s manuscripts passed from person to person and place to place for decades.
In 1637, the “Codex on the Flight of Birds” surfaced at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. Its journey to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana is traced in the memoires of Giovanni Ambrogio Mazenta. He recalled that he had seen 13 notebooks by da Vinci about 17 years after Melzi died, in the possession of Lelio Gavardi, a tutor to the Melzi family, whom Mazenta claimed had stolen them. Mazenta convinced Gavardi to return the notebooks to the Melzi family. Impressed by Mazenta’s honesty, Orazio Melzi, son of Francesco, made a gift of the 13 notebooks to Mazenta. He also offered to let him have anything else he wanted from the remaining materials bequeathed to his father by da Vinci. Once word spread of Orazio Melzi’s seeming lack of interest in the da Vinci treasure trove, collectors and dealers descended, leading to the dispersal of the surviving evidence of the wide-ranging work of da Vinci.
Pompeo Leoni, came into possession of the codices after the death of Mazenta’s brother. He disassembled them to organize the pages by subject and collated them into what became the “Codex Atlanticus.” In 1610, Polidoro Calchi, Leoni’s son-in-law, sold the manuscripts to Galeazzo Arconati, who later donated the material to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in 1637. Arconati’s gift records the first specific mention of the “Codex on the Flight of Birds” since it passed from da Vinci to Melzi in 1519. From this point forward, movements of the “Codex on the Flight of Birds” specifically are known.
In November 1796, Napoleon Bonaparte had all the da Vinci manuscripts in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana transferred to Paris as payment of war tributes. These manuscripts included the “Codex Atlanticus,” of which at that time the “Codex on the Flight of Birds” was a part. In 1815, the “Codex Atlanticus” was returned to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana through intervention by the Vatican. A part of it, however, known as Manuscript B, which included the “Codex on the Flight of Birds,” remained in France.
Between 1841 and 1844, a mathematician and book lover named Guglielmo Libri spent time in Paris studying the manuscripts still there. He removed a number of pages, including the entire “Codex on the Flight of Birds,” with the intention of selling them. Libri took apart the “Codex on the Flight of Birds.” Five pages (1, 2, 10, 17, and 18) were sold in London between 1859 and 1864, ending up in the hands of a painter and art collector, Charles Fairfax Murray. The other 13 pages were sold to Giacomo Manzoni, and upon his death in 1889, passed to his heirs. In 1892, a Russian named Theodore Sabachnikoff, who was an avid student of the Italian Renaissance, bought the 13 pages of the “Codex on the Flight of Birds” the Manzoni family inherited. When Murray learned of this, he sold to Sabachnikoff one of the five pages he owned, page 18, not realizing the other four were from the same notebook. Sabachnikoff’s goal was to publish the “Codex on the Flight of Birds,” and having done so then gifted it to Queen Margherita of Italy, who deposited it in the Biblioteca Reale in Turin in December 1893. Ten years later, page 17 made its way to Turin. The last three pages (1, 2 and 10) were sold to a collector from Geneva, Enrico Fatio, who a few years later gave them to King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, who reunited them with the others. Finally, after four centuries of extraordinary twists and turns, da Vinci’s complete “Codex on the Flight of Birds” came to rest in the Biblioteca Reale in Turin.
The Biblioteca Reale in Turin, Italy, was founded in 1831, and holds works by such masters as Michelangelo, Rembrandt and da Vinci as well as 200,000 volumes, 4,500 manuscripts, 3,055 drawings, 187 incunabula, 5,019 16th-century books, 1,500 works on parchment, 1,112 periodicals, and 400 photo albums, maps, engravings and prints. In addition to the “Codex on the Flight of Birds,” the Biblioteca Reale holds da Vinci’s famous self-portrait, dated circa 1512.
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