Leonardo the visionary inventor?

    All we should really conclude from this mildly tawdry attempt to pump more gas into the over- inflated balloon that is Leonardo’s modern reputation is that this balloon’s capacity for growth is truly astonishing. Just when you think the da Vinci nonsense has reached its limit, someone finds a way to force in more hot air. If Leonardo had actually been a proper scientist, rather than an annoying sudoku player who never finished his puzzle, he might have recognised the immutable laws of the vacuum in operation. The law of the vacuum recognises that where there is nothing, all sorts of other stuff rushes in to fill the gap. In the mid-17th century, a proper scientist, Blaise Pascal, invented the syringe and the hydraulic press as a result of his precocious understanding of this immutable natural truth. The syringe and the hydraulic press are two useful, working inventions. Which is two more than Leonardo came up with.

    What about the tank and the bicycle, I hear you splutter. What about that huge square parachute fluttering above the foyer of the V&A, or the extravagant flying gizmo next to it? What about the helicopter, the submarine, the aqualung and all those other wacky mechanical wonders Leonardo is loosely imagined to have invented? They never existed. Not one of them. Not only did they never leave the drawing board, there was only rarely any kind of drawing board for them to leave.

    For instance, the rickety glider thing suspended from the roof — the one that looks like a vehicle escaped from an episode of Wacky Races — was originally constructed for a television programme about Leonardo’s flying ambitions. A team of experts, using vaguely rustic materials, built what is essentially a home-made hang-glider. This unsafe-looking leather and wood mono-wing managed to bump across a field at the climax of the film, and occasionally left the ground in a manner that was supposed to prove Leonardo had indeed invented a working flying machine.

    Of course, it is true that he was fascinated by flight. It is true that he watched and drew flying birds intently, in the hope of learning their secret. It is true, too, that there are sketches by him of bits of primitive flying contraptions. But none of that added up in his lifetime to a feasible flying machine, let alone an actual one. The most that can be claimed is that the wing design employed here relates to a sketch he produced of a single wing. The rest is modern fantasy.

    In fact, as Donald Sassoon points out in his hilarious unpicking of the Mona Lisa myth, Mona Lisa: The History of the World’s Most Famous Painting (HarperCollins, 2001; “Invaluable”: Waldemar Januszczak), the real Leonardo might actually be described as “technologically challenged”. Unlike Galileo or Newton, say, he never made a scientific breakthrough in any field. His experiments with new painting methods were regular failures that resulted, in the most notable instance, in The Last Supper crumbling off the wall. He never discovered a scientific law. And he never actually invented anything of note. Yes, he dreamt of flying machines, but that doesn’t make him a scientific genius, any more than Jules Verne is a scientific genius because he imagined sending rockets to the moon 140 years ago.

    You rarely hear actual scientists insisting on Leonardo’s scientific prescience. The myth is the handiwork of dumbstruck art historians who find his extravagantly busy drawings magnificently difficult to understand. The cryptic presence of these overflowing pages is powerful and enticing. Confronted by a puzzling Leonardo sheet filled with diagrams, figures, faces, numbers, eddies, locks of hair and those extraordinary annotations in his unique back-to-front handwriting, all roaring about like a storm in the Alps, your typical, mathematically challenged man of letters succumbs as quickly as he might before a Jackson Pollock, and for many of the same reasons: never mind the detail, feel the creativity.

    Strangely, the drawings gathered here have been displayed in two strict lines of chrome- coloured consoles that capture the mood of the flight deck on the USS Enterprise. I suddenly realised that I was in the presence not of a great scientist, but of a great science-fictionist. Leonardo was not the Einstein of the Renaissance, but its Isaac Asimov. The weird landscapes that he imagines in tiny corners of his drawings, the swirling seas and foggy mountains, are interplanetary more than mysterious.

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    It’s an impression heightened by the animations that flicker here in the half-light above the vaguely sinister rows of viewing consoles. Instead of making Leonardo’s drawing ambitions clearer, the animations take them deeper into the world of sci-fi. What are those Dalek-like machines advancing through enemy lines and firing guns in destructive circles? According to this show, they are early tanks. But they’re not, really. These are fantasy projections of modern sci-fi imaginings onto what was a pretty basic idea for a circular wooden cart, inside which advancing troops might shelter. To call this the first tank is to call a catapult the first guided-missile launcher.

    Like all the Leonardo myths, the myth of the scientific genius is a recent creation. Just as extraordinary numbers of obscurantists today are prepared to swallow all that hokum presented to them in The Da Vinci Code, so the myth of Leonardo the great scientist began to enlarge crazily at the beginning of the 19th century. Napoleon naughtily brought back a selection of manuscripts from his Italian campaigns, and the baffled Romantic mind, peering into those barely penetrable mêlées of signs, squiggles and flashes of exquisite draftsmanship, began to imagine what wasn’t there: to fill out Leonardo’s fragmentary scientific achievements with florid understandings of its own about the secrets of the universe. Into the Leonardo vacuum flowed not knowledge, but ignorance; not fact, but fiction.

    Our own contribution has been a crazy determination actually to build the contraptions we imagine Leonardo to have invented. It’s a desire best understood as stemming from the same appetite that makes Robot Wars seem attractive, or Scrapheap Challenge.


    Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design, V&A, SW7, until January 7, 2007

    Mona Lisa in her youth

    The Dulwich Picture Gallery is about to unveil a remarkable copy of the Mona Lisa that used to belong to Sir Joshua Reynolds. I’ve never seen it. Few people have. But it’s generally thought to be the most telling of the many copies, the one that reveals the most about the Louvre’s infuriatingly mysterious masterpiece.

    Reynolds considered it to be Leonardo’s original. But proper science has established that it was actually painted early in the 17th century in France, at Fontainebleau, where the Mona Lisa was hanging at the time. It therefore constitutes an unusually intimate and accurate record of the painting’s appearance 400 years ago.

    The glowing blue sky, so different from that brown pea-souper behind the Louvre’s Mona Lisa, must have been the original colour of Leonardo’s sky. The most interesting details, though, are the two columns that flank the sitter. This traditional Renaissance framing takes away much of her mystery and makes it much easier to see that she’s just a woman sitting on a balcony. The columns are in Leonardo’s painting, too. But these days you hardly notice them.