“Dimmi,” (Tell me) Leonardo would scrawl when breaking in a new pen nub. His incomparable volumes tell of everything from flying machines to irrigation projects to designs for musical instruments, all set down without punctuation or accents, often with several short words run together into a long one or a long word divided in half.
An illegitimate son of a Florence notaio and a country woman, Leonardo described himself as an "omo senza lettera," a man without letters, but he loved words and wordplay. In Florence in the 1470s Leonardo hung out with a group of Tuscan poets "alla burchia" (which translates as in a hurry, piled up at random, or higgledy-piggledy). These rap artists of their day improvised verses in a slangy, ribald, satirical style called burchiellesco.
Leonardo’s eclectic written treatises include the memorably titled, "Why Dogs Gladly Sniff One Another's Bottom” (“Perché li cani odoran volentieri il culo l’uno all’altro”). The reason: The smell lets them know how well fed a dog is. A whiff of meat indicates a powerful and rich owner—and a need for deference.
Leonardo delighted in puns, complex codes, spoofs, and pictograms (sketches, for instance, of the letter “o” and a drawing of a pear-–pera in Italian–to represent the word opera, Italian for "work"). He also jotted jokes in his notebooks. In one, a painter is asked how he depicted such beautiful images of things and yet produced such ugly children. The punch line: he made his paintings by day and his children by night. In a riddle, Leonardo asked which men walk on treetops and which on the backs of great beasts. The answer: It depends on whether they are wearing wooden clogs or ox-leather shoes.
Words and Expressions
Sfumatezza — delicacy of shading, characteristic of Leonardo's painterly technique
Saper vedere — to know how to see, Leonardo’s fundamental quest
L’ultima cena –- The Last Supper, another of Leonardo’s masterpieces
Il codice da Vinci — The da Vinci Code
Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.