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Leonardo da Vinci

Entry updated 3 June 2024. Tagged: Artist, Theme.

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(1452-1519) Florentine painter, sculptor, inventor and military engineer, celebrated since the Enlightenment as the epitome of Renaissance creative genius and frequently invoked as an sf Icon of these qualities. He had no surname as such, "Leonardo" being his given name, "di ser Piero" designating his natural father (he was illegitimate), and "da Vinci" indicating that he was born in the town of Vinci; he is, therefore, normally cited as Leonardo, or Leonardo da Vinci. "Da Vinci" or "Vinci" is inappropriate. The first novel to present Leonardo as protagonist seems to be Dmitri Merezhkovsky's Voskresennie Bogi: Leonardo da-Vinchi (1901; trans as The Forerunner: The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci 1902; complete trans Bernard Guilbert Guerney as The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci [The Gods Resurgent] 1928; rev 1964). Although Merezhkovsky's Leonardo inhabits a world of supernatural events, the evocation of the man is essentially rationalist, and what might be called the Vinciad – a subgenre today comprising the majority of all stories written about Leonardo – has always emphasized Leonardo's ability to create marvels through mechanical means, with particular attention paid to his lifelong interest in flying machines, including devices to enable solo Flying, described ecstatically.

Manly Wade Wellman's Twice in Time (May 1940 Startling; cut 1957; rev with text restored and 1 story added coll 1988) offers a perspective on Leonardo's Florence via Time Travel and a plot twist whereby the modern protagonist eventually becomes Leonardo. This device is echoed in Robert A Heinlein's The Door into Summer (1957), as the likely fate of a lost time-traveller named Leonard Vincent; Diana Wynne Jones's A Tale of Time City (1987) features an ingenious minor Villain called Leon who is deliberately exiled through time to fifteenth-century Vinci to "make his mark there". A variant is the story in which Leonardo is brought forward into the present: "Mister da V" (May 1962 Seventeen) by Kit Reed is an example. However, most tales dealing with Leonardo eschew Time Travel to leave him in Renaissance Italy where – and this is the defining element of the Vinciad – he actually does build one or more of his fantastical designs.

Gerald Kersh's "The Dancing Doll" (in Men Without Bones, coll 1955) exemplifies the specific appeal of the Vinciad: his Leonardo realizes how to build breathing tubes that will allow soldiers to cross a shallow river, while remarking on the proboscises of mosquitoes in pestilential swamps (and incidentally almost discovering the role of insects in disease transmission; see Medicine), and explains this to his patron duke while designing a toy doll for the duke's ailing son (whom he also cures). Kersh's Leonardo is similarly diverted from work of scientific importance in "The Mysterious Mona Lisa Smile" (26 July 1948 Saturday Evening Post; vt "The Ape and the Mystery" in The Brighton Monster, coll 1953): his eagerly propounded scheme for life-saving water purification is ignored by a duke interested only in the Mona Lisa's strange smile, understood by Leonardo as merely "the secretive smile of a woman with bad teeth".

That iconic painting has attracted much sf attention, perhaps most powerfully in the implied Dystopia of Ray Bradbury's "The Smile" (Summer 1952 Fantastic), whose central event is the picture's eager destruction by a mob. The comic premise of Bob Shaw's "The Giaconda Caper" (in Cosmic Kaleidoscope, coll 1976) is that Leonardo created multiple variant Mona Lisas as part of a zoetrope-like device which anticipates the Cinema with a brief dirty movie. Charles L Harness's "The Tetrahedron" (January 1994 Analog) not only "explains" the Mona Lisa but posits that Leonardo invented the titular Time Machine to research facial expressions for his painting of the Last Supper.

Vinciads have been popular in mainstream fiction as well as in the sf and fantasy genres, although with the difference that Leonardo's Inventions in these cases usually do not surpass twentieth-century technology. The Medici Guns (1974) by Martin Woodhouse and Robert Ross (1918-?   ) – sequelled by The Medici Emeralds (1976) and The Medici Hawks (1978) – is a typical example, with Leonardo being called upon by Lorenzo de Medici to create weaponry to defend Florence against the invading papal armies. The Deluge (1954 chap) by Robert Payne is a Disaster novel credited to Leonardo, supposedly "edited by" Payne and based on fragmentary material by Leonardo. In Der Judas des Leonardo (1959; trans Erich Mosbacher as Leonardo's Judas 1989) by Leo Perutz, Leonardo uncannily selects a contemporary, whose treachery is unknown, to portray as Judas. The Second Mrs Giaconda (1975) by E L Konigsburg, a historical novel for young readers, emphasizes the synthesizing nature of Leonardo's genius. The spoof Leonardo's Kitchen Note Books (1987) by Shelagh and Jonathan Routh proposes a whimsical Alternate History in which Leonardo's central obsession was cookery; his sketched engines and towers are reinterpreted as kitchen appliances, tableware, etc. Dan Brown's bestselling thriller The Da Vinci Code (2003) is driven by a vast conspiracy theory involving the Catholic Church and coded messages consciously inserted by Leonardo into his paintings.

Vinciads have also proven popular outside print fiction, usually with a more fantastic cast. Vertigo/DC Comics published a Graphic Novel, Chiaroscuro: The Private Lives of Leonardo da Vinci (May 1995-April 1996 in 10 instalments) created by Charles Truog, David Rawson and Pat McGreal; an earlier Batman graphic novel proposed that Leonardo might have donned a Bat costume in order to wreak vengeance in Florence. The movie Hudson Hawk (1991) directed by Michael Lehmann dramatizes a modern-day quest to recover an invention by Leonardo – who in fact detested alchemy – to transmute lead into gold (see Transmutation). Leonardo has appeared, in variously rationalized sf forms, in episodes of Star Trek ("Requiem for Methuselah" [1969] by Jerome Bixby) and Doctor Who ("City of Death" [1979] by Douglas Adams, also featuring the Mona Lisa).

Treatment of the theme by more literary writers has tended toward the elliptical and figurative, and appears almost exclusively in the work of fabulists. Jeanette Winterson's Art and Lies (1994) briefly evokes Leonardo (in the consciousness of a disturbed painter). Leonardo does not in fact appear in Guy Davenport's Da Vinci's Bicycle (coll 1979).

More recently the Vinciad has become popular in Genre SF and fantasy, in part perhaps because the clockwork universe of Renaissance cosmology (Leonardo's drawings included designs for hydraulic screws and complex gearworks) has obvious affinities with the spirit of Steampunk. Pasquale's Angel (1994) by Paul J McAuley develops a thoroughly imagined Alternate History in which the hubristic genius of Leonardo – "the Great Engineer" – has created an early industrial Dystopia in Renaissance Italy. Several of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, beginning with Men at Arms (1993), feature the Leonardo da Vinci-like figure Leonard da Quirm, who compulsively sketches Inventions (often highly destructive) annotated, like the original Leonardo's sketches, in mirror-writing; Jingo (1997) features a long journey Under the Sea in a submarine built by Leonard, and in The Last Hero (2001) he masterminds a Discworld Space Flight programme. Jack Dann's The Memory Cathedral (1995) is a convergent Alternate History that dramatizes Leonardo's invention of the flying machine and other marvels during an undocumented period of his life. The Vincian fantasy seems to have become a potent trope. [GF/DRL].

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci

born Vinci, Florence, Italy: 15 April 1452

died Ambrose, France: 2 May 1519


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