PARIS -- They look as alive as the day Leonardo da Vinci painted them: tasty cherries, ripe, red, ready to eat; crackle-fresh peas popping from their pods; a raspberry, so simple, so enticing.
Turn a page in the 500-year-old manuscript and marvel as da Vinci rushes on. Here, he draws plans for a stairwell, there fearsome-looking swords. The sketches are so immediate you can almost picture the master artist at work, his mind, hands and soul racing to capture, understand and peel the layers of his world.
Using digital technology, the Louvre Museum in Paris, is making da Vinci accessible as never before, photographing 12 of his notebooks -- which have not been exhibited together for 50 years -- so visitors can flip through them with the click of a mouse.
The effect is breathtaking -- like touring the great genius' mind. Normally kept in a bank vault, each yellowing sheet testifies to the insatiable curiosity of the artist, architect, engineer, inventor, theorist, scientist and musician some describe as the ultimate embodiment of a universal man.
Notebooks were da Vinci's companions in life, carried around in his pockets and whipped out to sketch what he saw and to jot down his thoughts, said organizers of the exhibition that opens next Friday and runs to July 14.
Mere words cannot describe the breadth of subjects da Vinci covered. But random flicks through the pages turn up, for instance, the divine painting of cherries and peas, sketches of churches, animals, trees and people, plans for a flying machine, studies on bird flight and the flow of water, theories on painting, notes on shadow and light, a list of purchases for friends -- the mundane to the sublime.
"It's like a stream of consciousness," said Varena Forcione, an exhibition director. "It is his mind poured onto paper. It's extraordinary."
Just 28 of da Vinci's notebooks survive today, out of at least 50 that his pupil Francesco Melzi is thought to have put together, Forcione said. The 12 in France were stolen by soldiers in 1796. Labeled A through L, they were last exhibited together in 1952 at the Louvre and are kept in a vault at the Bank of France, the central bank.
"Their value is inestimable," Forcione said.
Da Vinci wrote in Italian, in a peculiar back-to-front style, from right to left across the page. Some authors suggest da Vinci did so to keep his writings secret. But scholar Carmen Bambach says it was because he was a southpaw: Reverse-writing allowed his left hand to stay ahead of his writing and not smear the ink. The easiest way to decipher da Vinci's spidery script is to read it in a mirror.
In the notebooks, da Vinci appears to switch effortlessly between writing and drawing; both are parts of his language.
There are also notes about contemporary events, like the death of a French king, and occasional insights into his day-to-day life.
"Giacomo came to live with me on the day of the Saint Madelin in 1490. He is 10," da Vinci noted in manuscript C, writing of a young apprentice whom scholars believe later became the artist's lover.
In manuscript A, da Vinci argues that artists should work alone. Trying to paint with companions in the studio does not work because "one cannot serve two masters, you will not succeed in being good company and succeed even less in pursuing your reflections on art." Some notebooks are pocket-sized, barely bigger than a cigarette packet. Others are larger, roughly magazine size. Notebook A is bound in white leather and held shut with blue string.
Some 1,080 pages were photographed digitally, work that took six weeks, Forcione said. Visitors can flip through the notebooks on six computer screens and click the mouse to zoom in on details.
The 12 originals are displayed open in glass boxes at the exhibition, which also includes 85 da Vinci drawings and 47 works by his pupils and other artists.
Previously, the only way to see copies of all 12 manuscripts was in a book by a Florence, Italy, publishing house. It costs about $11,000 and is generally found only in specialized libraries, Forcione said.
The Louvre says it is exploring the possibility of publishing the virtual notebooks on CD-ROM after the exhibition.