Why Holkham Library is Celebrating Leonardo da Vinci and the Codex Leicester

Posted: May 23rd 2019

by Mac Graham, Holkham Librarian

Holkham library is celebrating an old friend. It was so exciting to hear that leaves from Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester would be returning to these shores this summer. This small treasure, which once blessed the library shelves at Holkham Hall, would be available to see in England once again – the first time since 1981! The British Library will show 7 sheets (containing 28 ‘pages’) from Leonardo’s notes, along with other treasures.

Events across the country are marking 500 years since the death of Leonardo da Vinci. Holkham Library has an extra reason to celebrate: this year also marks 300 years since the Codex Leicester arrived on these shores for the very first time. Like many of the artefacts purchased by Thomas Coke on his Grand Tour, the Codex followed-on in the wake of its new owner. Thomas had returned home in time for his 21st birthday and, conveniently, also his marriage to Lady Margaret Tufton, setting up home both in London and at Holkham over the spring and summer of 1718. The items he purchased, however, had fewer pressing engagements to return for, and began to arrive from 1719.

Thomas Coke during his Grand Tour, by Trevisani
Thomas Coke during his Grand Tour, by Trevisani

We suspect that the Codex Leicester first found a home in the library of Thanet House, their London dwelling, and only moved up to Norfolk – to the soon to be completed Holkham Hall – on the death of Thomas Coke (by then the 1st Earl of Leicester – hence Codex Leicester) in 1759. There it remained, with one or two outings back to London, until death duties forced its sale in 1980, whence it found its way to the United States and has since travelled the world.

So, how to celebrate?

As luck would have it, Thomas Coke had a copy of the Codex Leicester made in Rome, even before he finished his Grand Tour, which is still in the Holkham Library. Copied left to right (rather than in Leonardo’s mirror hand) Thomas would have been able to read this manuscript! Then, in 1909, a high quality photographic facsimile of the Codex was produced. Again, this rather handsome volume still graces our shelves. Lord Leicester arranged for this volume to be lovingly refurbished (and loose pages re-stitched) this spring so that we might put it on display for the public.

Starting in June, a different page of the facsimile will be on display each month, alongside photographs of the earlier manuscript copy of the Codex. This display, in the Chapel Gallery in the Hall, will run until the end of October. It is included in the normal admission price.

Information panels discuss how the Codex Leicester came to be made and how it relates to Leonardo’s wider world. We discuss what motivated Thomas Coke to purchase this important work and what it says about the man and his book collecting urge. A time-line takes us back to Leonardo’s birth and right up to date with Bill Gates’ agreement to loan the leaves to the British Library this summer. We also explain what a Codex is and show what Leonardo’s writing looked like the ‘right’ way around.

As a bit of fun, you can also try your hand at ‘Leonardo-style’ mirror writing. Something you can take away to show your friends, be you young or old!

See opening times and prices here.

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