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Leonardo da Vinci (Vinci 1452-Amboise 1519)

Recto: Pictographs, and astronomical studies. Verso: Pictographs, and an architectural plan c.1487-90

Stylus, pen and ink | 30.0 x 25.3 cm (sheet of paper) | RCIN 912692

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Recto: a sheet of puzzle writing, chiefly in the form of pictographs; the majority of the pictographs are made up of animals and plants. Verso: pictographs drawn over an architectural plan, possibly a project to remodel the Corte Vecchia (‘Old Court’) to the south of the Duomo in Milan, where Leonardo had his lodgings and workshop. Melzi's 47.

Pictorial puns were beloved of the Renaissance, and on this sheet Leonardo tried his hand at pictographs –  ‘picture writing’ formed from objects and symbols, with the solution to the puzzle written below each line. Many are fragmentary phrases on the trials of love, the standard theme of courtly poetry. For instance, on the verso at upper right are the letters che po; a bone (osso); the musical notes fa re; a saddle (sella); a handshake, representing good faith (fede, or fe’); a measuring cup (mina); an ecclesiastical mitre (mitra); the letters el; and a heart (cuore). This gives Che posso fare se la femina mi trae’l cuore, ‘What can I do if the woman plucks my heart?’

Text adapted from Leonardo da Vinci: A life in drawing, London, 2018