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Musings on a Notebook

AH, Leonardo!

At a time when ``notebook'' has become shorthand for ``notebook computer,'' and the more compact ones are being promoted for this holiday season in the ``gifts under $1,000'' category, we read about the sale of a rather more expensive notebook: The Codex Hammer, a 72-page manuscript of Leonardo da Vinci, sold last week in New York for $30.8 million.

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The seller was the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center in Los Angeles. The buyer was billionaire Bill Gates, of Microsoft Corporation fame. The would-be buyer was the largest private bank in Milan, the Cassa di Risparmio della Provincie Lombarde, trying to win the manuscript back for Italy.

Competition between Mr. Gates and the bank was what drove the price to a new world record for a manuscript at auction, displacing ``Henry the Lion,'' an illuminated work that sold for $11.8 million in 1983.

The notebook isn't exactly a work of art, but rather a collection of musings on astronomy, geology, geography, and other topics, composed in Florence and Milan between 1508 and 1510. A century before Galileo, for example, Leonardo observed that moonlight is reflected sunlight. Water is a prominent theme: The work foresees the development of submarines and the steam engine. There is a discussion of why waves ``curl.''

We haven't seen the Codex ourselves but can appreciate the appeal of a work like this: Notebooks, letters, and rough drawings can convey a certain intimacy with a great intellect. One sees in such formats the emergence of ideas in their preliminary forms; it is like seeing the spring from which a mighty river flows.

Gates has not been known hitherto as an art collector, but a spokeswoman has said he has long admired Leonardo as an innovative genius and creative thinker. She has also said that Gates plans to have the manuscript on public display much of the time.

It is a sign of the times that the kind of European cultural artifact that was once the property of an oil baron like Armand Hammer has become the property of a software baron like Gates.

It is a sign of the timelessness of a genius like Leonardo that his notebooks can mean so much today.

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