How Bill Gates Spent $56 Million on a Rare Manuscript

Which book could Bill Gates make the most expensive in the world? Maybe the “Bible”? No, somehow it doesn’t fit with the personality of the founder of Microsoft. 

But what about the only surviving manuscript handwritten by Leonardo da Vinci? This is another matter. 

Why did Gates need the most expensive book in the world? What is written in it, and why is it valuable? Read more in this article.

Read more about strange Bill Gates theories here.

“A treatise on water, earth, and celestial bodies”

The manuscript is a notebook of 18 double sheets of paper, nested one inside the other, for a total of 72 pages with a size of 29 by 22 centimeters. Each page contains about a thousand words. The text is annotated with various illustrations, diagrams, and explanations.

Leonardo da Vinci's notebook

It is believed that initially the cover of the notebook was leather, but at some point it was replaced with paper sheets. The text is written in Italian, but with the so-called “mirror cipher” invented by da Vinci himself. It can only be read using a mirror.

All entries were made over a period of about six years, between 1504 and 1510. Leonardo da Vinci worked on the text in Milan or Florence, or maybe both. What is written in the notebook, which is considered the most significant scientific work of the scientist and artist?

At the beginning of the 16th century, da Vinci was passionate about studying the world around him. Leonardo reflected on the origin of water, air, minerals, and celestial bodies (especially the moon.) His reasoning about the nature of these and other things formed the basis of the manuscript. It is not for nothing that the treatise is called “on water, earth, and celestial bodies.”

Today, da Vinci’s theories may seem naive and largely erroneous. However, for their time, these were bold reflections, many of which were ahead of the scientific discoveries that later confirmed them. In general, it was a purposeful attempt by a reasonable person to know the world around him with the help of the limited tools of that time.

In the notebook, on almost every page, Leonardo da Vinci promoted the idea of the Earth as a single organism. He called the air the soul of the world, the soil its body, and the rivers its blood. From this central idea came the rest of the reflections on the planet as a huge living organism, all the “organs” of which are closely interconnected.

Since, as da Vinci believed, any organism is a mechanism that can be improved, then the surrounding world can be improved with the help of various structures. Hence, there is a lot of text about the necessity and the arrangement of artificial canals and on the construction of bridges and dams. In general, water is given the most attention in the treatise. The scientist wrote about rivers, currents, the influence of obstacles on them, and about the peculiarities of water behavior in various conditions — such as in reservoirs, pools, etc.

Da Vinci was also the first to suggest that the mountains had previously formed the seabed, only gradually rising, to eventually form what became mountain ranges. Scientists later came to this conclusion because fossilized remains of sea creatures could often be found in the mountains.

But talking about the Moon, da Vinci made a mistake familiar to his time. He believed that if the Earth is dotted with rivers, and covered with seas and oceans, then the Moon should have a similar structure. Leonardo suggested that the Earth’s natural satellite is covered with water. This water reflects sunlight, and that’s why the Moon glows so. Of course, waves are constantly moving across the giant lunar ocean, which is why the light is scattered, and the Moon does not shine as brightly as the Sun.

But da Vinci, a hundred years before Kepler, suggested that the dark part of the Moon reflects light not from the Sun, but from the Earth. This explained the dimmer glow of a part of the satellite. By the way, the scientist immediately made a note in the margins, in which he reminded himself of the need to “make a glass to look at the Moon closer.” It was almost a hundred years before the invention of the telescope.

Da Vinci made the last entry in his notebook in 1510. After that, he devoted almost all his time to the study of human anatomy, which, of course, had no place in the “Treatise on Water, Earth, and Celestial Bodies.” Soon, the scientist moved to France, where he was engaged in organizing court holidays and planning the construction of a new palace. In 1519, the great Italian died, and his manuscript disappeared.

The fate of the manuscript

Most likely, the notebook went to Francesco Melzi, a student and friend of da Vinci. The fact is that it was Francesco Melzi who received almost all of Leonardo’s inheritance and remained the administrator of his property for the next half century. Presumably, somehow the Notebook later ended up in the hands of Giambattista della Porta.

An old da Vinci manuscript

However, this is all speculation; but nothing was known for sure about the fate of the manuscript for a century and a half. But it is known for certain that the manuscript was found in 1690. It was tracked down by the artist and first secretary of the St. Luke’s Academy in Rome, Giuseppe Ghezzi. The notebook turned out to be in Rome in the trunk of a certain Milanese sculptor (it is suggested that this was della Porta.)

Ghezzi owned da Vinci’s notes until 1717, when he decided to sell them to the Englishman Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester. From him the manuscript received a new name, under which it was known for more than 200 years — the “Codex Leicester.” By the end of the 1970s, the notebook was owned by Coke’s descendants. All this time the manuscript was kept at Holkham Hall Castle in North Norfolk.

Closer to the 21st century, it so happened that Coke’s heirs were mired in debt. The da Vinci manuscript was seen by them as a salvation and an opportunity to pay it off. The notebook was put up for sale. Carlo Pedretti, a specialist in the restoration of ancient manuscripts, became interested in the lot. However, he did not have such money, so he turned to his friend, the rich industrialist and collector Armand Hammer. He bought the notebook in 1980 for $5.1 million, which today, taking into account inflation, is about $17 million.

After more than 400 years of not the most careful storage, the manuscript had become very dilapidated. Peretti took up the painstaking work of restoring the notebook, and at the same time translating the text into English. It took seven years for this work. And three years later Armand Hammer died.

The heirs treated the da Vinci manuscript mostly indifferently, and therefore they decided to sell it again. This time the buyer was the University of California. The amount of the transaction was not disclosed. However, the notebook did not stay long in the walls of the institution. A few years later, it was put up for auction at Christie’s. It was there that the founder of Microsoft bought the manuscript during the auction in 1994.

In the hands of an “IT specialist”

At the time of the auction, Bill Gates was a very young 39-year-old businessman. He had recently married, and he didn’t have any children yet. However, even then, Microsoft’s success was enough to spend millions of dollars on whatever he wanted. And it’s good that Bill wanted to become the owner of Leonardo da Vinci’s work.

Young Bill Gates

Gates paid $30.8 million for the scientist’s notebook. In today’s dollars, that is more than $56 million. Considering this, until today, almost 30 years later, the “Treatise on Water, Earth and Celestial Bodies” remains the most expensive book in the world. For comparison, in second place is the US Constitution, which is estimated at $45 million.

It’s a good thing that Bill Gates didn’t buy the manuscript in order to lock it in a safe and forget it, content with the simple fact of owning the most valuable manuscript. By his order, the notebook was scanned page by page. Later, some of the scans were distributed as desktop wallpapers in Windows 95 and Windows 98. In addition, all pages of da Vinci’s work were released on a separate CD in 1997.

Bill Gates also announced the launch of the Codescope project. We are talking about a virtual copy of da Vinci’s work with elements of interactivity. Such a virtual notebook can be flipped through, you can translate individual passages of text, play animated pictures, and watch a video with a reconstruction of the experiments described by the great scientist (mainly with water). The project was announced four years ago, but so far nothing new has been heard about it.

Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook itself was unbound, and each page was inserted separately between two panels of glass. Every year these pages are exhibited in different cities of the world. In between trips, the masterpiece is exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum.


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