Ancient Sources and New Experiences <

By nature, all good humans have a thirst for knowledge
Leonardo da Vinci
Codex Atlanticus, fol. 327v. Translation: Elizabeth Hughes




In the 15th century, scholars throughout Europe, especially in Italy, sought to raise knowledge of and familiarity with authors from ancient Greece and Rome to a new level. The goal of these humanists was to collect textual sources systematically from widely diverse fields of knowledge and make them accessible through commentaries, translations, and soon through printed editions as well. Encyclopedias such as those by the philologist and mathematician Giorgio Valla (ca. 1447–1499) made previously rare handwritten treatises generally available.
Florence was the first center of this movement, which was celebrated as the rebirth (Rinascita or Rinascimento in Italian, Renaissance in French) of ancient culture. The ideal of antiquity rapidly penetrated and inspired every cultural area, such as literature, architecture, and the visual arts. Parallel to this, the study of ancient traditions also promised resources for solving technical and scientific problems and tasks of contemporary life. Ancient natural scientists such as the Greek mathematicians Archimedes (ca. 287–212 BCE), Ptolemy (ca. 100–160 CE), and Euclid (ca. 300 BCE) were important authorities whose extant works formed a fixed canon. Their achievements also inspired Renaissance scholars in their own research and further observations.
Another canonical work is the Ten Books on Architecture by the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius (ca. 70 BCE–ca. 15 CE). Its impact can hardly be overestimated and Leonardo da Vinci naturally owned an edition.
A contemporary counterpart are the writings of the philologist, master builder, and art theorist Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472). His architectural designs, like those for the façade of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, are considered incunabula of Renaissance architecture, while his writings on the genres of architecture, painting, and sculpture laid down the first theoretical basis for the new forms of design. The humanist Alberti was regarded by his contemporaries as a shining example of universal education. He was an inspiration for Leonardo, too, not least for the latter’s own theoretical writings on painting.


Leonardo's Berlin Library: Section 4 <

lberti, Leon Battista, Aesop, and Aulus Gellius. Vita Aesopi. Aesop: Fabulae. Leon Battista Alberti: Apologi. Aulus Gellius: Noctes Atticae
15th c.

This composite manuscript from the second half of the 15th century contains the (incomplete) life story and fables of Aesop in a Latin prose version. It includes the fable of The Eagle and the Fox (11 ) along with a partly incomplete copy of the Apologi centum, an extensive collection of fables by Leon Battista Alberti that originally numbered 100 texts. At a time when the “original” Greek Aesop was being rediscovered and translated, the Italian humanist Alberti renewed the ancient genre by liberating it from its largely didactic textbook function and elevating it to an artistic literary form for educated adults. His 100 Apologi, which he claimed to have written in just nine days in December 1437, are distinguished by the great stylistic elegance of the Latin and their meticulous brevity. Inspired by Alberti’s Apologi, Leonardo composed around 50 of his own, similarly trenchant fables, but in his native Italian (48 ).



    Alberti, Leon Battista, Bartholomaeus Scala, Leonardo da Vinci, and Bernardino Baldi. 2004. Renaissance Fables. Aesopic Prose by Leon Battista Alberti, Bartolomeo Scala, Leonardo da Vinci, Bernardino Baldi. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by David Marsh. Edited by David Marsh. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 260. Tempe, Ariz.: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.


    Korenjak, Martin. 2008. “Eine alte Gattung neu erfunden. Die Apologi centum des Leon Battista Alberti.” Philologus 152 (2): 320–342.


    Marsh, David. 2000. “Alberti, Scala, and Ficino. Aesop in Quattrocento Florence.” Albertiana 3: 105–118.


    Pillola, Maria Pasqualina, ed. 1993. Rinucius Aretinus. Fabulae Aesopicae. Pubblicazioni del D.AR.FI.CL.ET. N.S., v. 151. Genoa: Dipartimento di Archeologia, Filologia classica e loro tradizioni.