Leonardo da Vinci, a magician?
Leonardo da Vinci
Without question Leonardo is the undisputed heavyweight genius of all time and the quintessential Renaissance man.
He was a master painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, astronomer, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, city planner, botanist, and writer and I could list more. And now it seems that the title, ‘amateur magician’ should also be added to Leonardo’s résumé!
Before we begin let’s first take a quick look at magic during the renaissance period.
It was the 14th to the 17th century we call it the Renaissance. It literally means re-birth. And a re-birth it was indeed! Western civilization was slowly being pulled out of the dark/middle ages and all of the arts and sciences were growing and flourishing with this re-birth. The performance art of magic was no exception.
Performing Magic, historically.
Up to this point in history a person could be severely punished, even put to death, for doing anything that looked remotely magical; it was viewed as witchcraft. Now, with this cultural re-birth, the magical arts were, for the first time, being seen for what they truly were. Entertainment.
Magic was now being performed as entertainment in the streets, the marketplace and in the royal courts throughout Europe. The first books on magic were even being written.
The artists of the day, through their drawings and paintings, vividly captured the action and excitement of the magical entertainers performing before the crowds in the streets.
A 500-year old book is discovered.
A few years ago I heard news of the discovery of a 500-year-old book in the Northern part of Italy. The book or manuscript had been tucked away archived in the basement of a university in Bologna all these years. The author was a 15th century Franciscan friar from Sansepolcro (Tuscany) Italy.
The friar’s name was Luca Pacioli. Along with being a man of the cloth, Fra Luca was also a brilliant mathematician and he is probably best known for a book he wrote titled “De Divina Proportione” (The Divine Proportion). Friar Luca had a very good friend who was also an artist. It was this friend who created the beautiful illustrations for the book. His artist friend was none other than Leonardo da Vinci.
Fra Luca and Leonardo met in Milan in 1497. At the time, both Luca and Leonardo were under the patronage of Milan’s duke, Ludovico Sforza. Luca and Leonardo, both being geniuses, became fast friends and over the next ten or so years they would travel together and collaborate on a number of different projects. It was through Fra Luca that Leonardo would learn some of his more advanced math and geometry skills. Fra Luca also worked as a biblical consultant to Leonardo on his painting of the Last Supper. And it was Luca who is first to make mention, in his writings, of Leonardo being left-handed.
Back to Fra Luca’s newly discovered book:
The book was titled, De Viribus Quantitatis, (The Power of Numbers). Unlike his other books, this one never got published and over the past 500+ years the book lay archived and practically untouched.
So what was the book about?
It was a book on magic! Friar Luca Pacioli was an amateur magician! The text revealed numeric puzzles (thus the name), instruction on how to juggle, how to make a coin dance, how to eat fire and a few other magical stunts. The book also makes one of the first ever references to card tricks. It is the first major work focusing on teaching magic.
What makes it even more unique is that the teaching leans towards performing with the idea of entertaining the audience.
Was Leonardo into magic?
From numerous renaissance biographical writings we get a distinct picture of Leonardo as a bit of a prankster and a deceiver. Here are just a few examples.
– One time Leonardo came across a very unusual lizard. He took the lizard home and fashioned wings for it made out of lizard scales. He even created horns for its head and a small beard. He kept his little “dragon” as a pet for some time and totally freaked his friends out with it.
– In his volumes of notes he always wrote backwards so the text could only be read when looked at in a mirror. Some art historians feel Leonardo did this to keep his writings secret, a sort of code.
– Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), the renaissance biographer of the masters, wrote that Leonardo was a very convincing speaker. On one occasion he convinced a group of scholars that he had designed a model which when reproduced full size could lift the church of St. John off the ground so that steps could be placed beneath. His reasoning was so convincing that everyone believed him!
– Vasari also commented on Leonardo’s uncommon strength, relaying that he could bend a horseshoe with his right hand! Physical strength or a bit of magical deception?
Leonardo had an insatiable curiosity and a deep fascination with the mysterious and unknown. In these few examples of Leonardo’s deceptive side and especially now, in light of his close friendship with an amateur magician, one can easily imagine Leonardo also becoming intrigued with magical deception especially where it might involve math, science and skillfulness of the hand!
Another note on Friar Luca Pacioli: he is often referred to as the father of modern accounting. He is the inventor of double entry bookkeeping. Leonardo’s father and grandfather were also accountants. Had Leonardo been of legitimate birth he too would have probably followed in his father’s footsteps and become an accountant. Another bit of trivia – Leonardo was born on April 15th.