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History and Stories



The riddle of Leonardo's pedal-cycle

Whoever drew that scribble, would you please stand up?

After the restoration of one of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, a scribble of a two-wheeler was found in the renaissance genius' manuscripts. It was thought to be the drawing of the first bicycle. Later historians suspected it was a monk's XX century fake.

Leonardo did not scribble that sketch, nor would he never have drawn anything like that. Why? Because Leonardo was an architect, engineer, inventor and painter. He dedicated his entire life to science and the "belle arti" and simply did not draw like that.

So what is a scribble of a bicycle doing in the Atlanticus Codex - one of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks? This riddle has been puzzling historians from all over the world since the1970s. Thirty years later we are no closer to discovering who is the architect of the sketch - no solution has materialised from all the critiques and accusations, only hypotheses.

"If there is a genius that is really misunderstood, this is Leonardo da Vinci," says Sergio Milanesi, an Italian technical designer who copies Leonardo's drawing for publications. "But Leonardo has his faults too," adds Milanesi. "He did everything to be misunderstood - reverse hand-writing, using pencils with dissolving colours, and never tiding up his notes."

Leonardo wrote everywhere. Any piece of paper was good for him to note down a thought or draw an idea. He had no formal training in Latin and was considered illiterate in his day. His scrawled notes were almost incomprehensible.

According to legend, the Italian genius Leonardo da Vinci died while pleading, "Tell me if any of my machines have been built." Critics say that Leonardo never completed his projects, and when he did, they didn't work. He foresaw many things that only recently have come into use. His drawings were more prophetic dreams than engineer's blueprints - take for example his helicopter, his tank or submarine, both of which lack a workable mechanism for powering the invention. But it is the idea that counts.

At the end of the XVI century an Italian sculptor and collector, Pompeo Leoni, catalogued thousands of Leonardo's single manuscripts into notebook form. The drawings of impenetrable fortresses, bizarre weapons and powerful cannons made good buys for Lords who could study and put into practice Leonardo's ideas.

Recently Bill Gates bought the Leonardo's Hammer Codex - ideas for new software?

Since then the notebooks have been exported, lost, stolen, smuggled, forgotten in old libraries, nibbled by rats and damaged by inexperienced restorers. Today only 30 of Leonardo's 46 (circa) notebooks are held in libraries. Some have been found by chance. Some are lost forever.

In the 1960s the "Ente Raccolta Vinciana", the Italian association which collects studies of Leonardo's work from scholars world-wide, decided to restore the Atlanticus Codex of Leonardo which is in the Ambrosiana Library in Milan.

The library belonged to the Vatican and so did the codex. The Pope of the time, Paul VI, consented to the restoration under the condition that it was performed by the monks of the "Laboratorio di Restauro" of the Abbey of Grottaferrata near Rome.

For security reasons a binding contract between the library and the restoration laboratory stipulated that absolutely no person was to be admitted to see the folios of the Codex during the restoration. This strict clause was always rigorously observed.

Of the 1750 original sheets, cut, glued and reduced to 401 by Pompeo Leoni, the monks resurrected more than 800 pages and rebuilt a new Atlanticus Codex to 1286 folios. They reported that the manuscripts had been restored by different hands at different times but not by them. They simply unglued, washed (in a 4:1 part mix of water and alcohol) and rebound the precious and delicate 400-year-old sheets of paper.

The notebook was then transferred to the Ambrosiana Library under police escort, where it was photographed by the Italian publisher Giunti. And it was on those photos that a connoisseur of Leonardo's thought and a specialist in his idiosyncratic Latin, Augusto Marinoni, based his transcriptions.

The sketch of the first "bicycle" was in the photograph numbered folio 133v. Marinoni dated this sketch circa 1493, the same date as that written by Leonardo on the front page of Codex Madrid I, where on folio 10r there were chains with cubic teeth. The same insignia can be seen on the bike. It was certain that it was not drawn by Leonardo, but probably by pupils of Leonardo's "bottega" (= workshop).

Here began the arguments.

There is no trace of the original sketch of the first bicycle designed by Leonardo. What we have is a bad reproduction - a child-like drawing - made in brown crayon of a medieval non-steerable pedal-cycle on the reverse side of a drawing fortress which certainly was drawn by Leonardo.

The drawing was hidden by collector Leoni because of the crude doodles of a walking penis with a tail, a hairy anus and a keyhole vagina on the same page.

Marinoni tried to convince other scholars that this was the work of one of Leonardo's pupils who tried to copy a sketch that he had seen in the studio. Next to the bike was a cruel caricature of a young boy. Only one word appears on the sheet - Salai, meaning devil, which was the nickname of Giacomo Caprotti. He was one of Leonardo's most favoured pupils, and perhaps toyboy, who later became a famous painter.

However it's unlikely that a young boy of the XV century could have invented a pedal-cycle 300 years before the official debut of the first two-wheeler, the German "Running Machine".

But Leonardo could. "It's not the bicycle but its idea that was born in Leonardo's mind," clarified Marinoni. The wheel already existed and there is no doubt of the authenticity of the chains and teethed cogs designed by Leonardo.

So what is the controversy? This theory has been repeatedly criticised, but none of the Leonardo's historians have ever been able to give an alternative explanation of the origin of that peurile sketch. Marinoni published several books on the subject and until today his hypothesis has remained the most reasonable.

In 1986 a full-scale wooden replica of the two-wheeler (see picture) was built by Giovanni Sacchi, an Italian technical designer. And since then it has been shown at the Museo Leonardiano di Vinci (near Florence) as one of Leonardo's works.

In October 1997 when Marinoni was seriously ill, Prof. Hans Erhard Lessing - a retired curator of the Museum of Technology and Labor of Mannheim - published his theory of forgery in The Boneshaker and The New Scientist which undermined Marinoni's hypothesis.

Lessing's theory is based on his scepticism and mistrust of the Italians. "Without proven contemporaneity of the scribbles," says Lessing, "Marinoni's tale of a pupil copying the bicycle from a lost drawing of his master remains mere speculation."

Marinoni died on the 31st December 1997 and never had the chance to reply to Lessing.

"Carlo Pedretti [an art historian of the University of California at Los Angeles] told me that when in 1961 he first saw the original 133v, he exposed the sheets to a very strong light because he was attracted by some drawings visible through the paper. Actually, all he could see were two circles and not what 13 years later Marinoni published in The Unknown Leonardo as the drawing of the first bicycle ever conceived in the history."

And when asked why Pedretti remembers this experience only 35 years later, Lessing explains: "I started to doubt Marinoni's theory but I couldn't find another one since nobody could have access to the original drawings. Marinoni's fame was so established among the historians of Leonardo that was unthinkable that he might be wrong. I tried very hard to express my doubt about Leonardo's bike, but at that time was very hard to object to Marinoni's thesis and the process of the monks' restoration.

Since 1968 when the Ambrosiana Library denied Pedretti the permission to work on the original manuscript of the Codex Atlanticus, he has not given too much importance to that sketch.

After several refusals of the Ambrosiana Library to open official inquires, Lessing comments: "I'm more and more convinced of the forgery of the sketch because of this "omertá" - mafia word for silence - of the Ambrosiana's management. They do not want to fulfil my requests, nor supply proof of the antiquity of the sketch. I think if they had some positive results of carbon-date analysis that places the sketch to 500 years ago, they would broadcast it."

The monks of the Laboratory of the Abbey of Grottaferrata maintain that chemical analysis of the drawing may damage the antique manuscripts. It may also be unsuccessful because of the existence of several means to falsify antiques manuscripts.

Alessandro Vezzosi - currently the foremost authority on Leonardo in Italy and also director of the Museo Ideale of Vinci - is sure of the forgery - "To me the Ambrosiana's silence is a symptom of embarrassment of having been had for more than 25 years".

Vezzosi will try to find a solution to this enigma on a trial web site where everybody - scholars included - is free to support their theories on the authenticity of the drawing.

"Because that drawing can not be attributed to Leonardo's hand," suggests Vezzosi, "and I'm sure of the honesty of the monks and of Marinoni's professionalism, an alternative theory is that it might have been drawn when the codices were in France - 1797-1815 - under Napoleon's orders, and when similar bicycles were actually around."

But Marinoni has always maintained that it was spurious that someone would orchestrate such a prank - re-glue Leonardo's sheets and wait for the monks' restoration, almost two centuries later. What for? And why not publicise their "discovery" then?

"The importance given here to the 'bicycle question' derives only from the groundless attacks of Professor Hans Erhard Lessing," comments Rosa Marinoni, wife of the historian. "He declares that the bicycle was invented by his compatriot, the Baron Drais von Sonnerbronn, in 1897 (a fact that no one disputes).

"The press has surely misconstrued Lessing's words. I'm sure he never directly accused the monks or my husband of forgery. These absurd fantasies need no comment; a serious scholar bases his assertions on real evidence and tries, at least, to be coherent and consistent with himself. These assertions are pure nonsense. They seriously offend the Laboratorio di Restauro of Grottaferrata, the Biblioteca Ambrosiana of Milan, and, in particular, the memory of my husband."

"What for? Fame? Money? An article in a special magazine or an interview in a national paper? And maybe a book that collects all the half-truths and suppositions that have taken from Da Vinci the honour of having been the inventor of such an ingenious machine."

Simple speculations will not solve the riddle unless whoever has drawn that sketch - dead or alive - shows up. But surely the refusal of the Ambrosiana's director, Monsignor Gianfranco Ravasi, to answer simple and harmless questions does not help.


Text and pictures by Felice Petrelli

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