Leonardo da Vinci & his treatise on painting

The project Leonardo da Vinci and his Treatise on Painting documents the legacy of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) on the science of art.

It concentrates on the Treatise on Painting, a disorganized, fragmented, and misleading text that was compiled by Francesco Melzi, one of Leonardo's pupils, around 1540 but that was regarded as a Leonardo original for centuries.

The Treatise on Painting circulated widely. Artists, scientists, and scholars including Nicholas Poussin and Galileo Galilei, read it avidly as an authoritative record of Leonardo's thoughts. In the 19th century, when the artist's original notes became available, scholars realized that the text poorly reflected Leonardo's sophisticated ideas.

This project unearths and examines the inaccurate but highly influential interpretation of Leonardo's legacy transmitted in the Treatise on Painting.

The digital platform gathers restricted visual and verbal materials of the Treatise on Painting from around the globe. Its analytical and comparative functions make it possible to demonstrate breakdowns and misinterpretations of Leonardo's legacy.

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Significance of the Treatise on Painting

The art-historical significance of the Treatise on Painting cannot be overstated. Although Leonardo da Vinci did not write the Treatise on Painting, this text was primarily responsible for the dissemination of his art theory from the mid-sixteenth century to the early nineteenth century. The text circulated in manuscript form and over forty different manuscript copies are currently dispersed in repositories around the globe.

From 1651 onward, the Treatise on Painting was available also in printed editions, which appeared in many vernacular languages.

Unlike Leonardo's original writings, which were largely unavailable until the early nineteenth century, the Treatise on Painting was widely read by artists, natural philosophers, and writers. Famous readers, such as Annibale Carracci, Nicholas Poussin, André Félibien and Galileo Galilei, regarded the Treatise on Painting as an original book by Leonardo, although we know today that this text was only a disorganized, selective compilation of his precepts on painting.

Consequently, the Treatise on Painting is of minimal significance in the reconstruction of Leonardo's art theory.

The analysis of the Treatise on Painting, however, becomes fundamental if the art-historical investigation focuses not exclusively on Leonardo's original writings and theories but also on the legacy of his ideas among Renaissance and Baroque artists, scholars, and natural philosophers.

The Treatise on Painting was germane for disseminating, for better of worse, Leonardo's art theory in Renaissance and Baroque Europe.


Art historians have long since recognized the significance of the Treatise on Painting in the study of Leonardo's legacy. In 1959, Steinitz compiled a census of the surviving manuscripts, which still serves as the basis of any study on this text, even though many additional copies have surfaced since her pioneering work. In 1964, Pedretti pointed out that the Treatise on Painting was only a drastically abridged version of Francesco Melzi's Libro di pittura and a few years later he proposed a genealogy and chronology of the surviving manuscripts, which remains fundamental, even though the comparative analysis made possible by the digital archive refines or, at times, revises his insights. Gombrich, Kemp, Damisch, and Farago, among others, have investigated the historical circumstances surrounding the first printed edition that appeared in Paris in 1651. Though these studies have greatly contributed to the understanding of Leonardo's legacy from the mid-seventeenth century onward, they have left unexplained the most basic events in the early history of this text: Why was the Treatise on Painting compiled in the first place? Why was it done the way it was? And who did it, and for what purpose? Consequently, a fundamental understanding of the influence and reception of Leonardo's ideas on the theory and practice of Renaissance and Baroque art is still lacking.

Building on earlier art historical scholarship and adopting new research tools in information technology, the project goes well beyond the scope, methodologies, and breath of traditional studies. Instead of concentrating on an individual text - be it an original notebook by Leonardo, a manuscript by one of his pupils, or a printed edition of the Treatise on Painting - the electronic archive makes it possible to account simultaneously for the synchronic and diachronic diffusion of the text in many copies, in different places, and at different times.