XIX Philosophical Maxims. Morals. Polemics and Speculations.

Vasari indulges in severe strictures on Leonardo’s religious views. He speaks, among other things, of his “capricci nel filosofar delle cose naturali” and says on this point: “Per il che fece nell’animo un concetto si eretico che e’ non si accostava a qualsi voglia religione, stimando per avventura assai piu lo esser filosofo che cristiano” (see the first edition of ‘Le Vite’). But this accusation on the part of a writer in the days of the Inquisition is not a very serious one—and the less so, since, throughout the manuscripts, we find nothing to support it.

Under the heading of “Philosophical Maxims” I have collected all the passages which can give us a clear comprehension of Leonardo’s ideas of the world at large. It is scarcely necessary to observe that there is absolutely nothing in them to lead to the inference that he was an atheist. His views of nature and its laws are no doubt very unlike those of his contemporaries, and have a much closer affinity to those which find general acceptance at the present day. On the other hand, it is obvious from Leonardo’s will (see No. 1566) that, in the year before his death, he had professed to adhere to the fundamental doctrines of the Roman Catholic faith, and this evidently from his own personal desire and impulse.

The incredible and demonstrably fictitious legend of Leonardo’s death in the arms of Francis the First, is given, with others, by Vasari and further embellished by this odious comment: “Mostrava tuttavia quanto avea offeso Dio e gli uomini del mondo, non avendo operato nell’arte come si conveniva.” This last accusation, it may be remarked, is above all evidence of the superficial character of the information which Vasari was in a position to give about Leonardo. It seems to imply that Leonardo was disdainful of diligent labour. With regard to the second, referring to Leonardo’s morality and dealings with his fellow men, Vasari himself nullifies it by asserting the very contrary in several passages. A further refutation may be found in the following sentence from the letter in which Melsi, the young Milanese nobleman, announces the Master’s death to Leonardo’s brothers: Credo siate certificati della morte di Maestro Lionardo fratello vostro, e mio quanto optimo padre, per la cui morte sarebbe impossibile che io potesse esprimere il dolore che io ho preso; e in mentre che queste mia membra si sosterranno insieme, io possedero una perpetua infelicita, e meritamente perche sviscerato et ardentissimo amore mi portava giornalmente. E dolto ad ognuno la perdita di tal uomo, quale non e piu in podesta della natura, ecc.

It is true that, in April 1476, we find the names of Leonardo and Verrocchio entered in the “Libro degli Uffiziali di notte e de’ Monasteri” as breaking the laws; but we immediately after find the note “Absoluti cum condizione ut retamburentur” (Tamburini was the name given to the warrant cases of the night police). The acquittal therefore did not exclude the possibility of a repetition of the charge. It was in fact repeated, two months later, and on this occasion the Master and his pupil were again fully acquitted. Verrocchio was at this time forty and Leonardo four-and-twenty. The documents referring to this affair are in the State Archives of Florence; they have been withheld from publication, but it seemed to me desirable to give the reader this brief account of the leading facts of the story, as the vague hints of it, which have recently been made public, may have given to the incident an aspect which it had not in reality, and which it does not deserve.

The passages here classed under the head “Morals” reveal Leonardo to us as a man whose life and conduct were unfailingly governed by lofty principles and aims. He could scarcely have recorded his stern reprobation and unmeasured contempt for men who do nothing useful and strive only for riches, if his own life and ambitions had been such as they have so often been misrepresented.

At a period like that, when superstition still exercised unlimited dominion over the minds not merely of the illiterate crowd, but of the cultivated and learned classes, it was very natural that Leonardo’s views as to Alchemy, Ghosts, Magicians, and the like should be met with stern reprobation whenever and wherever he may have expressed them; this accounts for the argumentative tone of all his utterances on such subjects which I have collected in Subdivision III of this section. To these I have added some passages which throw light on Leonardo’s personal views on the Universe. They are, without exception, characterised by a broad spirit of naturalism of which the principles are more strictly applied in his essays on Astronomy, and still more on Physical Geography.

To avoid repetition, only such notes on Philosophy, Morals and Polemics, have been included in this section as occur as independent texts in the original MSS. Several moral reflections have already been given in Vol. I, in section “Allegorical representations, Mottoes and Emblems”. Others will be found in the following section. Nos. 9 to 12, Vol. I, are also passages of an argumentative character. It did not seem requisite to repeat here these and similar passages, since their direct connection with the context is far closer in places where they have appeared already, than it would be here.



Taken from The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci edited by Jean Paul Richter, 1880.

Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci
XIX - Philosophical Maxims. Morals. Polemics and Speculations.
Prayers to God.
The powers of Nature.
Science, its principles and rules.
What is life?.
How to spend life.
On foolishness and ignorance.
On riches.
Rules of Life.
Against Speculators.
Against alchemists.
Against friars.
Against writers of epitomes.
On spirits.
Reflections on Nature.