January 10, 2017

The Fantastic Leonardo

        Leonardo da Vinci (Italy, 1452-1519) is known as an artist and a scientist, and an all-around Great Mind.  He was clearly also a fan of speculative fiction.  Speculative fiction didn’t exist as such in the fifteenth century, of course, but what else do you call an interest in inventing inventions that can’t possibly be built with present technology?  Or sketching from life the habits of animals that don’t exist outside the imagination?  Or then again, perhaps Leonardo wasn’t making these things up.  Maybe he really did have flying machines and all manner of other magical devices.  Maybe he really did draw his dragons from life.  In the sequel to The Extraordinary Book of Doors (one of my current “works in progress” that isn’t getting much work or progress, alas) I’ve discovered that Leonardo would have had access to a mythical beast sanctuary patronised by his own patron, Francis I of France and Francis’s good friend the Abbess of Tarascon.
        At any rate, over the winter vacation we went to an exhibit about Leonardo da Vinci at the museum of science.  It had a lot of 3-D models built to replicate sketches from his notebooks, and these were wonderfully pre-steam-punky and proto-sci-fi for sure.  Alas, there was no mention of the bestiary Leonardo wrote, which includes entries on the basilisk, dragon, unicorn, phoenix, jaculus, and lots more.  After extensive on-line searching for digitised copies or pictures of the sketches that illustrated these writings, I’m beginning to suspect that perhaps Leonardo didn’t illustrate his bestiary at all.  So here for you to enjoy are some of his unconnected drawings of creatures.  
        This first dragon is sure proof that Leonardo visited the mythical beast sanctuary.  See how Chinese this dragon’s head is?  Where would an Italian man in France see an Asian dragon unless he travelled through an enchanted doorway to a garden in China?… which just happens to be the location of the sanctuary maintained by the Abbess of Tarascon.  Moreover, the fur is a unique touch, clearly not something that you would make up from traditional legends - ergo it must be drawn from life.
        This little dragon, on the other hand, is of European stock, but just a hatchling, no larger than the cats with which it plays.  During the renaissance dragons were generally considered symbolic, but this one is obviously an active part of the household or barnyard where Leonardo was sketching.
        Leonardo was clearly a man who was not only intensely curious about the observable facts of nature, but also equally enthusiastic about the visions of his imagination.  I believe this is a common theme among the most creative thinkers throughout history.

[Pictures: Two mechanical models based on sketches by Leonardo da Vinci, photos by AEGN;
Study of a dragon, pen and ink and metalpoint sketch by Leonardo, 1513 (Image from Universal Leonardo);
Detail from Cats, lions, and a dragon, pen and ink wash over black chalk by Leonardo, c 1513-15.
Young woman seated with a unicorn, pen and ink sketch by Leonardo, 1479 (Image from Universal Leonardo).]

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