Leonardo’s influence on the art of his and following generations cannot be overstated, not only in terms of figural and narrative style but also for the merging of his artistic and scientific or mechanical interests. Indeed, of the more than four thousand Leonardo drawings that survive, the majority are not sketches related to paintings but rather studies from his notebooks. Much of the latter material has survived as part of one or another of the intact codices, but some of Leonardo’s mechanical designs and scientific investigations, including the present example, have come down to us as individual sheets.
Leonardo’s annotations on the Morgan drawing explain the functioning of the two machines sketched on the page. The study drawn in the upper section of the sheet is an elaborate maritime device designed to be mounted on the prow of a boat and used to scale a wall or tower from the sea. According to Leonardo’s indications, the large crescent-shaped receptacle was to be filled with hay, which, when it was wet, could be used as a counterweight. Once the boat was positioned, the hay soaked with water, and the device unlocked, the long arm would raise; at this point, the attackers could climb to the top of the scaling tower and assault the defenses. The drawing corresponds perhaps to one of the designs for maritime assault mechanisms mentioned by Leonardo in his letter of self-commendation to Lodovico Sforza seeking employment at the court of Milan: “Should a sea battle be occasioned, I have examples of many kinds of machines that are highly suitable either in attack or defense.”1
The second drawing, on the lower section of the page, represents a mechanism designed to bend wooden beams. One end of a wooden beam was to be clamped in a vise, while the other end was secured by a pair of pegs inserted in a set of notches in a wooden post. The pegs would have progressively lowered in the holes in the right-hand uprights, and the beam would have levered into an arched position over the central wedge. The device could have been sketched by Leonardo when he was involved in the design of the Milan cathedral between 1487 and 1490. This connection is further suggested by the fifteenth-century inscription on the verso of the Morgan sheet, which represents, as noted by Carmen Bambach, “a fragment of an account of credits and debits related to the Milan cathedral masons’ works.”2 The drawn apparatus may have served to bend wood for a variety of uses, perhaps in shipbuilding or in construction projects such as the domed tower (tiburio) that Leonardo designed for the crossing of the cathedral.3 This too would tie the chronology of the sheet to the artist’s first years in Lombardy, at a date close to that of the Paris Manuscript B, on which Leonardo’s written annotations unquestionably correspond in style to those visible on the Morgan sheet.4
The exact provenance of the Morgan drawing has never been fully resolved, although several scholarly hypotheses have been proposed. Carlo Pedretti first suggested that the Morgan sheet was once part of the Codex Atlanticus in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, from which a handful of drawings were removed sometime before 1894, the point at which the volume was first published by Giovanni Piumati.5 Giustina Scaglia, however, argued that the sheet was never incorporated in the Milanese codex but that it was instead in the possession of the captain-mathematician-engineer-artist Agostino Ramelli, who would have brought the drawing from Milan to La Rochelle, in France, when he was employed by the Duke of Anjou in 1572.6
- The letter, in the Codex Atlanticus (1082r/391ra), is dated ca. 1481–83. It is transcribed in Richter 1970, 2:397.
- See New York 2002–3, no. 55.
- Leonardo’s design drawings for the Milan cathedral project are in the Codex Trivulzianus (Castello Sforzesco, Milan) and in the second section of the Codex Forster I (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). Leonardo employed the carpenter’s assistant Bernardino de’ Madis to realize a wood model of the tiburio based on his drawings.
- The Paris Manuscript B, at the Institut de France, is dated 1486–90. On its inscriptions and their stylistic similarities with the annotations on the Morgan sheet, see Pedretti 1988, 142n3.
- This hypothesis has been supported by Carmen Bambach, to whom I am grateful for her discussions with me about the provenance of the drawing.
- According to Scaglia the drawing remained in France for two centuries until it entered Jacques Garnier’s collection either while he was mayor of Saintes (1794) or when he was a customs officer in La Rochelle (1812). See Scaglia 1995
Rhoda Eitel-Porter and and John Marciari, Italian Renaissance Drawings at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, 2019, no. 46.
Selected references: Morrison 1892, 6:325; Richter 1939, 2: no. 45; Steinitz 1948, 41; Richter 1970, 1: no. 50; De Toni 1975, 6-7; Pedretti 1977, no. 46; Pedretti 1988, 142- 43; Fellows Report 22 1989, 357-58; London 1989, no. 114; Florence 1992, no. 9.20; Pedretti and Trutty- Coohill 1993, no. 6; Scaglia 1995; Boston and Tübingen 1997, 146; New York 2002-3, no. 55; Matuschek 2005, no. 452; New York 2006, no. 6; Munich 2008-9, 13; Garton 2011, 159ff.; New York 2013-14, 61-62; Milan 2015, V1.15.
From Leonardo to Pollock: Master drawings from the Morgan Library. New York: Morgan Library, 2006, cat. no. 6, p. 14-15.
Ryskamp, Charles, ed. Twenty-First Report to the Fellows of the Pierpont Morgan Library, 1984-1986. New York : Pierpont Morgan Library, 1989, p. 357-358.
The catapult-like machine at the top of the page is for scaling towers while the machine below is designed to turn heavy beams during the construction of scaffolding.