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Pictographs and poetry

3 October is National Poetry Day in the UK. Did you know that Leonardo composed poetry - made up out of pictures?

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At the centre of this sheet of paper is an architectural plan by Leonardo da Vinci, probably a project to remodel the Corte Vecchia (Old Court) to the south of the Duomo in Milan, where the artist lived and worked in the 1490s.

From right to left, however, we can see small cartoon-like pen and ink drawings, otherwise known as ‘pictographs’, which collectively make up short phrases of poetry.

The artist has depicted objects, or often pairs of objects, which when pronounced in Italian, are puns on other expressions, or are homonyms of common words. Homonyms are words that sound alike, when pronounced or written down, but have different meanings.  For example, “pen” could mean a writing implement, or a place where animals are kept.

Leonardo’s picture poems frequently discuss the trials of romantic love, a common theme of Renaissance courtly poetry. An example of this can be seen in the sentence at the upper right of the sheet, also shown enlarged directly below. Remember Leonardo wrote right to left so his pictographs would be read that way too. 

Leonardo pictograms

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See if you can make out each of the symbols Leonardo has drawn to form a sentence. Starting on the right,  he's drawn:

  • the letters che po beside a drawing of a bone (osso)
  • the musical notation for the notes fa re
  • a saddle (sella)
  • two hands shaking, representing good faith (fede, or fe’), a measuring cup (mina), a mitre (mitra – a ceremonial headdress worn by a member of the clergy)
  • the letters el 
  • and finally a heart (cuore).

When read aloud, these symbols give the Italian phrase Che posso fare se la femina mi trae’l cuore, which translates as ‘What can I do if the woman plucks my heart?

Immediately below, from right to left, we can see the letters:

  • T a, and a pine cone (pigna)
  • the letters me;
  • several curly strands of hair (come)
  • the numbers 3 and 1 (tre, uno)and a single bean (fava)
  • a branch of the plant ella
  • two parts of a building’s arch (pronounced dime, in Milanese dialect)
  • the letters Ma
  • an anchor (ancora)
  • and some scratched lines representing hay (fieno).

Together, these pictographs represent the answer: Tapina me, come triunfava ella di me! Ma anchora fieno, or ‘Wretched me, how she triumphed over me! But still I will be’.

Have a go at trying to work out the meaning of some of Leonardo’s symbols on this sheet, or try writing your own pictograph poem. 

This drawing is on display in our exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace until 13 October 2019.