Cultural Challenges <

I am fully aware that the fact of my not being a lettered man may cause certain arrogant

persons to think that they may with reason censure me,

alleging that I am a man without letters. Foolish folk!
Leonardo da Vinci
Codex Atlanticus, fol. 327v. Translation: Mariangela Palazzi-Williams




Leonardo would have had little difficulty acquiring the religious and literary traditions of his period in the vernacular. This was to a certain extent expected as part of the intellectual socialization of a son from the Florentine bourgeoisie and a young artist who had been trained in one of the city’s most prestigious workshops. But it was far more difficult for him to explore fields of knowledge with different social connotations. In urban and courtly societies, access to high culture was reserved for those who had completed traditional studies in the form of a regulated curriculum. A command of Latin was imperative for acquiring the scientific and literary culture of antiquity. Leonardo became aware of his deficits, particularly in the cultivated surroundings of the Milanese court, and made great efforts to educate himself accordingly. He taught himself Latin and tried to master the current literary forms for conversation and written correspondence, all the while learning new technical and literary expressions to expand his vocabulary. Devising clever artistic subjects, such as those popular in the courtly milieu, also required a degree of familiarity with the subjects of classical education. Leonardo’s library reveals the growing diversity of fields of interest and work. This intellectual evolution, always closely linked with his own career, was facilitated not least by printing, which was rapidly gaining importance and made written works cheaper and more easily available.


Leonardo's Berlin Library: Section 5 <

Brant, Sebastian.

Stultifera navis [Ship of fools]

Translated by Jakob Locher. Lyon: Jacques Sacon, 1488 [1498]

The Narrenschiff (Ship of fools) by the Basel humanist Sebastian Brant (1457/58–1521), one of the most widely circulated books in the early modern period, was first published in Basel in 1494. The Latin translation by Jacob Locher followed just three years later and quickly became an international bestseller. Leonardo, who is known to have enjoyed satirical literature, owned a copy himself. The moralistic satire presents different follies of the time in over 100 chapters. Its success was certainly due in part to its abundance of woodcut illustrations, some of which were attributed to the young Albrecht Dürer. The illustration here is from the beginning of the book and shows the journey of the ship of fools to the kingdom of Narragonia.



    Brant, Sebastian. 2004. Das Narrenschiff. Nach der Erstausgabe (Basel 1494) mit den Zusätzen der Ausgaben von 1495 und 1499 sowie den Holzschnitten der deutschen Originalausgaben. Edited by Manfred Lemmer. 4. enlarged ed. Tübingen: Niemeyer.


    Idem. 2005. Das Narrenschiff. Edited by Joachim Knape. Reclams Universalbibliothek. Stuttgart: Reclam.


    Rupp, Michael. 2002. “Narrenschiff” und “Stultifera navis.” Deutsche und lateinische Moralsatire von Sebastian Brant und Jakob Locher in Basel 1494–1498. Münster: Waxmann.


    Wu, Meagan. 2019. In Leonardo’s Library. The World of a Renaissance Reader, edited by Paula Findlen. Stanford, CA: Stanford Libraries, 165,
    no. 31.