September 23, 2012

Buckingham Palace, Leonardo da Vinci, and a Lesson for Us All

I recently returned from a two-week vacation in Europe and Great Britain, leaving my daughter behind in London for a semester abroad. While there, I had the chance to tour Buckingham Palace, parts of which are open to the public a few weeks each summer while the Queen is at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. The state rooms of Buckingham Palace are fittingly ornate and impressive. I particularly enjoyed walking up the Grand Staircase to the Ballroom, then into the State Dining Room, where Queen Elizabeth II is said to personally supervise the details of the place-settings and menu for each occasion. I felt an undeniable sense of history touring the Palace during Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year (that’s an amazing 60 years on the throne).

Buckingham Palace (author's photo)

As part of my Royal Day Out ticket, I also got to tour The Queen’s Gallery, which currently is featuring an exhibit on Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist. And it was there that I received an unexpected, yet very powerful, lesson that I think relates directly to all of us engaged in tracing our family history.

Before my visit, I didn’t know that da Vinci, painter of The Last Supper and Mona Lisa, also studied anatomy. He made copious notes and fabulously detailed drawings of animal and human anatomy in the late 1400’s and early 1500’s, keeping them in various notebooks over the years. By the time he died in 1519, he had made discoveries and drawn sketches that could have transformed the study of anatomy for generations to come—if only other scientists had known about it.

But therein lies the rub. You see, da Vinci never published his ground-breaking work. It remained in loose, uncollected form upon his death. Even worse, da Vinci wrote his notes using “mirror writing”—a left-to-right hand style that is extremely difficult to decipher. Odd notebooks full of strange drawings and unreadable script that fellow artists and scientists didn’t even realize existed? Sad but true. Da Vinci’s work disappeared into oblivion. The sketches and notes were eventually collected into an album and acquired by King Charles II, but they were not interpreted and their significance recognized until the early 1900’s—roughly 400 years after they were first written. By then, other scientists had made even greater strides in anatomical studies, and da Vinci’s discoveries had lost their impact.

 Da Vinci's anatomical study of the arm
Da Vinci's drawing of a fetus in the womb

So what does all this have to do with family history? In the end, I think it comes down to two words: publish and preserve.

Now I’m the first to admit I get caught up with the thrill of the hunt. It’s hard to take time out to write my thoughts and conclusions up when it seems like more ancestors are waiting to be discovered around every corner. If only I branch out more widely, or reach back another generation, or break through that elusive brick wall—then I’ll write it up, I tell myself. It’s not finished yet, and besides, there’s always tomorrow.

But the sad truth is, there’s not always tomorrow. The recent death of John Humphrey, one of the world’s foremost genealogists and a wonderfully generous instructor and author, has driven home that point. Our time here is not unlimited. And if we want our work to survive us and be beneficial to those who follow, we need to make sure it’s preserved in useable, accessible form.

The lessons I hope to learn from da Vinci are:

1. Write in a format that will be universally readable and understandable for ages to come.
The fact that others couldn’t read what da Vinci had written was a big part of the problem. How do we make sure future generations can read our findings? Personally, I think this means we need to produce material in print rather than rely on computer files. Two hundred years from now, I’m pretty certain someone will be able to pick up a piece of paper written in English and read it. I’m not so sure that they will be able to access a DVD, flash drive, or GEDCOM file. And the “cloud” is still brand new territory. Technological changes are hard to predict, and today's Word file might be mumbo-jumbo tomorrow. Saving things electronically for current use is fine, but for the long haul, go with the hard copy.

2. Compile your findings into some organized, cohesive form—a report, article, book, lineage application, chart, or anthology.
Da Vinci’s lesson here is straightforward: don’t leave your hard-won research languishing in a stack of files or notebooks that no one else will make the effort to compile. Realistically, will your descendents, or even your favorite genealogical society, be willing to sift through piles of documents or layers of computer files? And will they know the conclusions you intended to draw? I don’t see anyone in my family raising a hand for that job. Along with this comes the responsibility of letting those who read your work know where you got the information. That doesn’t mean your source citations have to be perfect, as long as they contain enough detail for others to find and evaluate what you looked at.

3. Share your information with others by publishing or distributing it.
While publishing a family history book may be the ultimate goal for many of us, it can also be intimidating. But publishing doesn’t have to be a huge, one-time proposition. If you have a blog or family history website, you can publish some findings there. You could also write an article for your local or state genealogical society publication. Perhaps you could send copies of a report you write for yourself to others researching the family. There’s no right or wrong way to get the word out. Even the simple step of making multiple copies of a family summary and giving them to a number of people (say, all of your siblings and first cousins) is valuable. I inherited significant information on two family lines that way. Online family trees and wikis make it easy to collaborate with other researchers, as long as caution is used when merging material. And that book you’ve always wanted to write someday? Maybe a series of mini-books would be a more approachable goal. 

I realize that this is easy advice to give, but tougher to follow. If I intend to take it, I’ll need to make compiling and writing up my research more of a priority. But walking through that elegant gallery admiring what should have been ground-breaking work, only to discover that it completely lost its impact because it was never communicated effectively, was a powerful lesson. And it’s one I think has real significance for all family historians. Who better to learn it from than a master, and what better place than a royal palace?


(Images of pages from da Vinci’s notebooks, illustrating his mirror writing, are from Wikipedia Commons and are in the public domain in the U.S. The photo of the embryo studies page, taken by Luc Viatour,, is considered one of the finest images in Wikipedia Commons.)

Copyright 2012, Shelley Bishop


  1. Replies
    1. Glad it rang true to you, Michelle. I've learned so much about organizing and archiving things from you!

  2. You're so right, Shelley, about it being good advice -very good advice! - that's tough to follow. I need to get on it! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights.

    1. I'm with you, Nancy, in needing to get on it. I'll have to work at following my own advice!

  3. So true! Thanks for the reminder to keep writing! Sounds like the trip was great! I can't wait to hear more!

    1. Thanks, Jennifer. The trip was amazing. I'm sure a few more pictures will make their way into my blog in time :)

  4. Shelley, your post was a real wake-up to me. As a relative newbie, I'm sure I have been relying too much on the "Cloud" and We may not have Family Tree Maker through the generations -- but clear, compiled records (on acid-fre paper, right?) have at least as good chance of lasting. I'm also going to get letters and photos archived.

    I'm printing out Register Reports for all. I'll also make longer Ahnentafel sheets for the lines of relatives I've found, along with source citations when possible. As a parallel effort, I'll keep adding Ancestry family tree, which is approaching 700 members and almost as many waving leaves to check (more sources!).

    Already I've found a first-cousin-once-removed who is willing to take over the family genealogy when I'm too old to think. Thank you for this caution about our responsibility. If it can happen to Leonardo, it can happen to the likes of us!

    1. Mariann, it sounds like you've made great strides with your research already! I think you're wise to keep going on multiple fronts, printing out reports along the way. And I envy the fact that you have a cousin who is ready to step up to the plate one day. Thanks for reading and commenting!


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