Norman, Geraldine, The Independent (London, England)
ON 11 NOVEMBER a 72-page manuscript written and illustrated by the left hand of Leonardo da Vinci will be offered for sale at Christie's in New York. It is known as the Codex Hammer - after its former owner, Armand Hammer, the American entrepreneur and art collector. Christie's is talking of a price between $10m and $15m ( pounds 6.25m- pounds 9.4m).
There are, at most, 18 paintings that can be securely attributed to Leonardo, about 300 preparatory drawings for artworks, and 65 manuscripts, illustrated with sketches, which deal mainly with his scientific theories and their applications. Apart from the magnificent drawings belonging to the Queen, virtually everything is in institutional hands. The manuscript at Christie's is the most substantial example of the Renaissance master's output that is ever likely to reach the market.
Leonardo's fame is almost mythic. He and Michelangelo embody the achievements of the Renaissance, as European thought broke with the superstition of the Middle Ages and the scientific age dawned. But Leonardo the man, as opposed to the myth, has come to be known only in the past 100 years, as his manuscripts (around 5,000 closely written pages) have been painstakingly transcribed and studied.
Leonardo wrote down his ideas as they came to him, on scraps of paper, then transcribed the best of them to more careful manuscripts. The Codex Hammer is a collection of transcriptions, originally written on large sheets folded once to make four pages. Leonardo was left-handed and wrote from right to left; it is presumed that his folios were filled backwards. The manuscript contains 18 of these double sheets.
Most of his notes are a discussion of water, which he links to speculations on geology and cosmology. Water was one of his overriding interests; he intended to write two books, a treatise on painting and a treatise on water. Neither was completed, but his speculations on the nature of water fill many manuscript pages.
Leonardo incorrectly supposes that sunlight reflected in the waters of the moon is the source of moonlight, but correctly deduces that the secondary light of the moon is a reflection of sunlight on the seas of the earth. He studies how a stream flows round an obstruction, how to siphon water and canalise rivers; he explains the fossil shells found on mountains by suggesting, rightly, that "above the plains of Italy, where flocks of birds are flying today, fishes were once moving in large shoals".
The amazing energy of Leonardo's mind is revealed as he seeks to understand the complex nature of reality and its unifying laws. He has been described as a "pre-modern scientist". His determination to penetrate the very nature of what he painted lifts his art above that of his contemporaries. Without the studies of water and the erosion of rocks contained in the Codex Hammer, the watery background landscape of the "Mona Lisa" could never have been painted, it is claimed.
Christie's has exhibited the dismembered sheets of the Codex in Zurich, Milan, Seoul and Tokyo to allow private collectors, foundations, libraries and governments the opportunity to consider bidding for this extraordinary splinter from the true cross of western culture. The manuscript has been consigned for sale by the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center of Los Angeles. It became bound up with the mighty ego of Armand Hammer in 1980, when it was sold at Christie's in London on behalf of Viscount Coke, eldest son of the 6th Earl of Leicester; Coke was plagued with inheritance taxes and the British government had refused to take the manuscript in lieu of tax. It had been in his family since the 18th century: one of the great British collectors of the period, Thomas Coke, the 1st Earl, bought it on a visit to Florence in 1717.
In 1980 the manuscript was expected to sell for between pounds 3m and pounds 10m, and Hammer was thought to have got a bargain when the bidding stopped at pounds 2. …