Leonardo's Private Notes
Not only did Leonardo write with a special kind of shorthand that he invented himself, he also mirrored his writing, starting at the right side of the page and moving to the left. Only when he was writing something intended for other people did he write in the normal direction.
The purpose of his mirror writing is unknown, but one idea is that it may have kept his hands clean. People who were contemporaries of Leonardo left records that they saw him write and paint left handed. He also made sketches showing his own left hand at work. As a lefty, this mirrored writing style would have prevented him from smudging his ink as he wrote.
Why do you think Leonardo wrote in reverse?
No one knows the true reason Leonardo used mirror writing, though several possibilities have been suggested:
- He was trying to make it harder for people to read his notes and steal his ideas.
- He was hiding his scientific ideas from the powerful Roman Catholic Church, whose teachings sometimes disagreed with what Leonardo observed.
- He was trying to prevent smudging: writing left handed from left to right was messy, the ink just put down would smear as his hand moved across it.
Try It Out!
Type a message below to generate it in Leonardo's style.
Main Idea: Students will experiment with writing backwards as Leonardo did.
Learning Objectives: Experience writing in reverse. Communicate observations. Generate hypotheses about Leonardo's reasons for writing this way.
Time: 45 – 60 minutes
Materials: paper, pencils, pens, markers, mirrors
- Be sure students have visited the Mirror Writing web page and encourage them to discuss what they learned from it. Make sure they understand what we mean by writing backwards.
- Distribute paper and pencils and encourage students to try writing their signatures in cursive from right to left. This is challenging! If students have trouble forming letters in reverse, they should try the following exercise:
- Hold a pencil in each hand. Simultaneously, write backwards with the usual writing hand while writing forwards with the opposite hand. Having the one hand mirror the other hand's action may help the brain coordinate the movements.
- Have the students experiment with writing backwards alphabets and backwards sentences.
- Have them write backwards with pens and markers to make comparisons. Is one kind of writing tool easier to use this way than another?
- Distribute mirrors and show students how to position them to one side of their backwards writing to read it normally. A mirror also lets them check to see if they actually reversed all letters properly.
- Suggest that they try writing backwards messages to a partner who can then decipher them with a mirror.
Discuss your thoughts and observations about the experience of writing backwards. Did left-handed or right-handed students have an easier time writing backwards? Which medium (pencil, pen, or marker) seemed best for writing backwards? (Leonardo would have written mostly with pen and ink.) For someone who learns to write backwards as easily as they write forwards, what advantages might there be to backwards writing?
From the evidence gathered so far, write down why you think Leonardo wrote backwards. Post these hypotheses where they are visible to everyone. Refer back to these hypotheses as they explore this web site and others and examine published materials to learn more about Leonardo. Different authors will state different opinions about this question but no one knows the truth. Feel free to come up with ideas for experiments to test some of these hypotheses.
Not all languages are normally written from left to right. Hebrew is normally written from right to left. Traditional Japanese and Chinese are written from top to bottom starting at the right side of the page. Do you know of any other languages that are not written left to right?
If you were given the task of inventing an entirely new written language, which direction would you want it to be written in? Why?