The «knowledge of ancient times and of their place on this earth is ornament and nourishment for the human mind», wrote Leonardo in the Codex Atlanticus (f. 1040v) a few years before dedicating himself to compiling the Codex Leicester (beginning in 1506). This observation may be taken as the premise for his paleontological and archaeological notes.
Born in Etruscan land, Leonardo would naturally have taken an interest in the archaeological past of Tuscany even if he did not leave many drawings or notes relating to antique monuments or artefacts in his manuscripts. However, works such as the Battle of Anghiari contain clear references to the carved reliefs decorating Roman sarcophagi, such as the scene depicting The Fall of Phaethon on a stone coffin conserved in the Uffizi Galleries. Just as explicit were his references to epos and to the art of classical antiquity in the horses that feature so frequently in his work and in the subject matter of some of his most celebrated masterpieces, such as Leda and the Swan and Nymphs. His architectural projects also reflect his study of antique models.
Leonardo had a reputation among his contemporaries as an expert in anticaglie (antiquities). In May of the year 1502 Isabella d’Este asked him to value four antique vases in the collection of Lorenzo de’ Medici that she was considering acquiring. The author of the Codice delle Antichità di Roma (1501-1503) – perhaps Leonardo’s friend Bramantino, although this has not been definitely established – mentions a book by “Maestro Lionardo” which the artist himself brought with him to Rome in 1501
This book contained mentions a drawing of one of the buildings that formed part of Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, which we know that Leonardo visited in 1501. A Libro d’Anticaglie (sometimes identified as the Antiquarie Prospettiche Romane) is mentioned in a list of the books owned by Leonardo in the Codex Madrid II.
Moreover, Leonardo must necessarily have been familiar with the remains of ancient walls, amphitheatres, roads and tagliate (cuts) scattered all over the territory of Tuscany, just as he must have visited those collections of anticaglie found in all of the palaces of the aristocratic families of the time.