Leonardo from Vinci – scientist, engineer, architect, artist – was ahead of his time, a visionary, brilliant.
But he didn’t invent the bicycle. A shame, especially for Italians, who would like to trump the French.
In August 1997, Dr. Hans-Erhard Lessing wrote a paper for a Glasgow-based conference on cycle history that showed beyond reasonable doubt that Leonardo never sketched the Draisine-type bicycle attributed to him.
Lessing’s work reached a mainstream audience via an October 1997 article in New Scientist. This article was subsequently picked up by media organisations around the world and fingers were soon pointed at the most likely forger, a highly-placed restoration academic associated with the Codex Atlanticus clean-up.
This Italian academic never admitted any guilt (Lessing didn’t directly implicate him) but research published in 1998 by the French journalist Serge Lathière showed that two inks on the page said to contain the Leonardo bicycle design dated from post-1880 and post-1920.
Such proof has not filtered through to Reuters, CNN or Carlo Barbieri.
Barbieri is the curator of ‘Leonardo Da Vinci: A Curious Genius’, an exhibition of the designs described in the Codex Atlanticus which opened on Tuesday at Rome’s Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei.
"Leonardo was beyond time. He designed [diving suits, a bicycle and a car] 500 years before they could even be built," Barbieri told Reuters.
"Even the bicycle, is almost exactly like our modern version. It has the spokes and the chains, the only thing missing is the means to change the wheel direction."
A full-size model of the ‘Leonardo bicycle’ is sited next to a modern bicycle.
Ernesto Colnago would be proud: on the Colnago stand at the EICMA trade show in Milan in September, pride of place was taken by the limited-edition, carbon-fibre President LdV, named after Leonardo da Vinci.
At the show, and in current press releases, Colnago claimed that Leonardo was the "inventor of the bicycle."
Why the blindness when it comes to Leonardo and bicycle evolution? Italians would dearly love to claim the bicycle as their own.
Witness this prescient quote from 1949 by the Italian writer and film-maker Curzio Malaparte, a cycle-sport nut and Fascist-cum-Catholic:
In Italy, the bicycle belongs to the national art heritage in the same way as Mona Lisa by Leonardo, the dome of St. Peter or the Divine Comedy. It is surprising that it has not been invented by Botticelli, Michelangelo, or Raffael. Should it happen to you, that you voice in Italy that the bicycle was not invented by an Italian you will see: All miens turn sullen, a veil of grief lies down onto the faces. Oh, when you say in Italy, when you say loudly and distinctly in a café or on the street that the bicyclelike the horse, the dog, the eagle, the flowers, the trees, the cloudshas not been invented by an Italian (for it were the Italians that invented the horse, the dog, the eagle, the flowers, the trees, the clouds) then a long shudder will run down the peninsulas spine, from the Alps to the Eatna.
CNN via Reuters:
Professor Lessing’s detailed critique of the Leonardo bicycle:
Guinness Book of World Records gets it wrong, too: