Leonardo and mirror script

I sat down on my chair and opened my notebook. A yellow, folded over sheet of legal paper slid out and in one smooth gliding motion fell onto the floor. The old lady. I had completely forgotten about her note. I picked it up and unfolded it. The creases were precise like origami folds and still remembered the birdlike fingers folding them with sharp determination. The lettering elegant and even, very pretty, did not at all resemble the kind of handwriting to jot down a passing thought on a small piece of legal paper. I could read it and couldn’t at the same time. I got the rhythm and it seemed strangely familiar. It wasn’t all that difficult to decipher and yet it took a moment to realize how the writing had been transformed without becoming a stranger to itself. Most everyone who is capable of reading will eventually grasp the concept of script as reflected in a mirror. The old lady had been writing in mirror script. Once I recognized that she had used mirror writing I could read it as you would, too. My mother had once told me that Leonoardo da Vinci had used mirror writing in his journals. He only ever used his right hand writing from the left to the right side of the page when he was addressing someone else through his writing. For all other purposes he chose to write right to left side of the page, reversing his letters as he spelled each word. Historians have discussed ever since what could have motivated him to do so. Some have said that he wanted to make it harder for others to steal his ideas. I don’t think that could have been the reason. Anyone can read mirror script fluently just with the tiniest bit of practice. A genius like Leonardo could have done much better encoding, thereby disguising his secrets. I think he just chose to write from left to right because he was – as is known – left handed. A man who loved to draw in the most precise, specific way, would he not have hated to smear his own writing? But anyhow, reading reverse script is not all that difficult. But I wanted to make sure I got it right. So I lifted it up against the window. There it was, the writing clear and beautiful. I had recognized it even in mirror image, even before I had recognized it as such, I had listened to the words so often and had read them many times, they were like a familiar face. “The Road goes ever on and on. Down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, And I must follow, if I can.” She had painted the letters JRT underneath. And I must follow if I can. As if I didn’t know. I stared at the lettering in the mirror of the window glass against the darkening sky. I stared at myself holding the sheet against the pane. I stared at myself n the window glass. Who was I? Where was I? The other me looked back, a pale, shimmering reflection.

4 thoughts on “Leonardo and mirror script

  1. I’ve gotten to see a few of Leonardo’s drawings up close and the pencil strokes are slanted in the opposite direction– he definately drew left handed. Good point, maybe he didn’t want to smear his writing so he wrote the way he did.

    • a lot of left handed people do – though not all of them chose to also reverse their letters. but it must have seemed consequent to leonardo to do so as it takes the awkwardness out of writing, transforming it into an elegant skill. in his letters he used conventional left to right, no reversed letter writing. thank you for your comment, susan. where did you get to see the drawings up close?

      • I saw them at the Baltimore Museum of Art. They were on loan, not part of the BMA collection. There were a pair of collectors called the Cone Sisters that collected mostly Matisse’s throughout their lives. They dedicated their collection and a large endowmnent to the BMA. This gave the museum a lot of prestige, so they have been able to borrow art for interesting shows.

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