Don’t Believe The Bike

VinciVinci is a pretty little Tuscan hill village, the original home of the architypal “Renaissance Man” Leonardo da Vinci. To be honest, there’s not much to Vinci, apart from its associations with Leonardo, and even the church where he was baptized was “restored” beyond recognition in the 20th Century.

There are two museums in the small village, the better one in the 13th Century castle that belonged to the local count, Leonardo’s first employer. You can see reproductions of Leonardo’s drawings and notes, and models in wood of some of his proposed machines. Some are miniatures, some full-scale.

For me, the most striking model was the bicycle, lovingly reproducing the exact design from Leonardo’s sketch.

Leonardo's Bike

Except, of course, the drawing is bogus. Leonardo was smart, but he wasn’t psychic. The fact that the bicycle has all the elements of the fully-evolved modern machine should have been a hint that it wasn’t quite right. And the standard of drawing is crude and clumsy, not like Leonardo at all.

In fact, there is unequivocal, first hand evidence that the drawing “appeared” among the genuine ones some time in the 1960s. Carlo Pedretti of the University of California at Los Angeles had examined the sketch book in 1961. At that time, the pages were stuck together, but he held them up to a strong light and saw no bicycle. Instead, his notebook records two circles with curved lines through them where the cycle now appears.

The DrawingSome time later, a “wit” must have sketched over the original circles and created the bicycle. Chief suspects are the monks who were subsequently restoring the manuscript and had separated the stuck pages for the first time. The bike was discovered by an Italian academic in 1974, and taken to be genuine.

In fact, Italians like the idea of the Italian invention of the bicycle so much that many are still prepared to believe it. I don’t believe it, but I do think that Leonardo invented the helicopter and the tank, and was quite a nifty painter.


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