The Codex Atlanticus consists of 1119 sheets and was donated in 1637 to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, founded by Cardinal Federico Borromeo in 1609 and one of the first public libraries in the world. Basically Leonardo’s entire life as an artist and a scientist appears in this extraordinary collection, which covers a time frame that goes from 1478, when Leonardo was still working in his native Tuscany, to 1519, when he died in France. The folios deal with various subjects ranging from mechanics to hydraulics, from studies and sketches for paintings to mathematics and astronomy, from philosophical meditations to fables, all the way to curious inventions such as parachutes, war machineries and hydraulic pumps.
In his will Leonardo donated his writings to his loyal disciple Francesco Melzi who followed the master to France during the years he spent at the court of King Francis I.
Melzi was very aware of the inestimable value of this legacy and of the the enormous trust that his Master put in him and he jealously kept the folios in his villa in Vaprio D’Adda near Milan, until his death in 1570. Unfortunately, his descendants did not prove equally zealous and let the huge heritage become prey of unscrupulous art dealers.
At the end of the sixteenth century the sculptor Pompeo Leoni managed to retrieve some of Leonardo’s folios from Melzi’s heirs, and set out to mount them onto large sheets, used at the time for making atlases: that’s why the Codex would be named from then on “Atlanticus”. Leoni did not follow a precise ordering criteria though, privileging the overall aesthetic effect of the volume and creating a collection destined more for an admiring audience than for scholars.
The Codex was then sold by one of Leoni’s heirs to Marquis Galeazzo Arconati, who understood its real value and in 1637 decided to donate it to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, which would be able to ensure the Codex’conservation and transmission to future generations in virtue of its mission, devoted to culture and study.
Such a treasure, however, did not escape to the experts who drafted the list of the works to be transferred to Paris after the conquest of Milan by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1796. For 17 years it was kept in the Louvre Museum and then in 1815, when the Congress of Vienna ratified the return of all artworks stolen by Napoleon to their countries of origin, it was given back to the Ambrosiana, where it is still jealously conserved.
A curious anecdote tells that the commissioner engaged by the Austrian Empire (under which Lombardy fell) to reclaim their artworks was an elderly baron, almost ignorant of science and art. He was about to leave the entire Codex Atlaticus in Paris as he had mistaken it for a manuscript in Chinese, because of the Master’s well-known reversed handwriting. It was Antonio Canova, the commissioner for the Pope, who realized the mistake and firmly asked him to bring the Codex back to the Ambrosiana.
In 1968 the Codex underwent an impressive restoration work at the monastery of Grottaferrata in Lazio, during which it was bound in 12 massive volumes while maintaining the original sequence ofsheets set by Leoni. This choice led to many problems of conservation and study, since in order to make comparative analysis of the folios it was necessary to consult more volumes at once, or to consider drawings placed in very different points of the same tome.
In 2008 the “Collegio dei Dottori” chaired by the Prefect Monsignor Franco Buzzi, in cooperation with the “Cardinale Federico Borromeo Foundation“, decided to solve this serious difficulties and to start anepoch – making disassembling of the 12 volumes of the Codex. Each sheet has then been positioned within “passe-partouts” cases, designed specifically to ensure the best conservation and to facilitate their exhibition at the same time.
From September 2009 until 2015, the year of the EXPO, the sheets will be displayed in different themes and rotated every 3 months. With the aim of creating an ideal tour of the most important works of this great Master still remaining in Milan, two exclusive venues were chosen: the Bramante Sacristy, jewel of Renaissance architecture, and the ancient Federiciana Room of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, open to the public for this exceptional occasion.