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Mechanical Lion- The Feast of the Fortress



The first reconstruction of two mechanical feasts by Leonardo da Vinci.
LEONARDO BUILT an automatic mechanical lion that was
presented in homage to the new King Francis I of France on
the occasion of his solemn entry into Lyon in 1515. A document
reported in a letter of October 28, 1807, from Iacopo Morelli to
Giuseppe Bossi and published by Giovanni Galbiati over a century
later, in 1920, enables us to shed light on the circums tances of
the commission1. This document is a description by Michelangelo
Buonarroti the Younger of a banquet for the marriage of Maria
de’ Medici and King Henri IV of France, published in Florence
in 1600. It describes the moment when a fierce lion appeared to
the guests: “as it moved, and rose in two parts, the chest opened
and one could see that it was full of lilies”. Buonarroti took care
to specify that it was “a concept similar to that which Leonardo da
Vinci carried out for the Florentine Nation in the City of Lyon
for the arrival of King Francis”. With the specification “for the
Florentine nation”, Buonarroti shows to have been well aware that
Leonardo’s patron was the governor of Florence, Lorenzo di Piero
de’ Medici, the nephew of Pope Leo X and Giuliano de’ Medici,
the Pope’s brother. On January 9, 1515, the day of Louis XII’s death,
Giuliano left Rome, as noted by Leonardo, who had been his
guest at the Vatican.
Giuliano was on his way to marry Philiberta of Savoy, the aunt
of the future King Francis I. It was the first step of the Medici
Pope’s policy of getting closer to France, and that step was later to
lead to a meeting between the Pope and Francis I in Bologna in
December the same year. On July 12, 1515, the new King made his
triumphal entry into the city of Lyon, and was warmly welcomed,
1 The document that Jacopo Morelli, librarian of the Marciana Library in Venice
brought to the attentino of Giuseppe Bossi in Milan, is a printed booklet passed
unnoticed by all Leonardo biographers up to modern times. This is Michelangelo
Buonarroti Il Giovane, Descrizione delle felicissime nozze Della cristianissima Maestà
di Madama Maria Medici Regina di Francia e di Navarra, Florence, 1600, p. 10. Morel-
li’s letter was first published by Giovanni Galbiati, Il Cenacolo di Leonardo da Vinci
del pittore Giuseppe Bossi nei giudizi d’illustri contemporanei, Milan, 1919, pp. 27-29.
This publication too passed unnoticed until Carlo Pedretti’s paper “Leonardo at
Lyon”, in Raccolta Vinciana, XIX, 1962, pp. 267-272, after a first announcement in
his A Chronology of Leonardo da Vinci’s Architectural Studies after 1500 […], Geneva,
1962, p . 112. It appears that the next reference to it is again by Carlo Pedretti in his
Leonardo architetto published in Milan in 1978 (with several reprints and foreign
editions up to the present day), pp. 319-322, with reproductions of the title-page
and of the f. C 2 r (p. 10). Soon after this book, the Buonarroti document is men-
tioned again by Pedretti in his Leonardo da Vinci. The Royal Palace at Romorantin,
Cambridge, Mass,, 1972, pp. 2 and 313, and then is cited by Maria Luisa Angiolillo,
Leonardo. Feste e teatri. Presentazione di Carlo Pedretti, Naples, 1979, p. 82. Finally,
it is not included in the standard repertories of documents pertaining to Leon-
ardo’s life and work, such as Beltrami’s of 1919 and Villata’s of 1999, nor in other
major Leonardo monographs of more recent years. See however Carlo Vecce,
Leonardo. Presentazione di Carlo Pedretti, Rome, 1998, pp. 8 and 326.
The automatic lion
Luca Garai
particularly by the substantial Florentine community of bankers
and merchants. This explains the intervention of the governor of
Florence, Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, who was a financial backer
of the Florentine community in Lyon, and for whom Leonardo,
again in 1515, designed a magnificent palace in Florence, opposite
that of Cosimo the Elder, the old Palazzo Medici2.
Leonardo’s technological masterpiece was devised and created in
Florence, and later sent to Lyon. No reference to this extraordi-
nary event remains, however, in Leonardo’s manuscripts. The in-
depth research that I carried out in the Municipal Archive of Lyon
does not enable us to establish whether the automatic device was
presented on the occasion of the King’s first entry into Lyon, on
July 12, 1515, or later the same year in Lyon or Bologna, or even in
1517, in connection with the solemn entry into the city of Francis
I’s wife, Claude of France. According to documents published by
Solmi in 19043, a mechanical lion, probably Leonardo’s, appeared
again on September 30, 1517, on the occasion of Francis I’s entry
into Argentan, and again when he entered Amboise in 1518. The
title of “meschanicien d’estat”, the King’s mechanic, as it appears
in the document of Leonardo’s burial at Amboise on August 12,
1519, can well be taken as a recognition of his recent technological
marvel in honour of France.
There is more historical evidence of Leonardo’s mechanical lion,
but none of it specifies the occasion for which it was built. Be-
sides the curious mention by Vasari (1550 and 1568; Milanesi, IV.
374), Lomazzo recalled in 1584 what he had heard from Francesco
Melzi, the pupil who followed Leonardo to France: Accord-
ing to what Francesco Melzi told me […], once, in the presence
of Francis I, the King of France, he made a lion, so marvellous
a mechanism, walk from its place in a room, and then stop to
open its chest to show that was full of lilies and other flowers”5.
2 Leonardo’s projects for a new Medici palace in Florence are identified by
Carlo Pedretti in sheets of the Codex Atlanticus (ff. 315 r-a and r-b [864 r and
865 r]) in his books on Leonardo as an architect, first in 1962 and 1972, and then
in 1978.
3 Edmondo Solmi, “Documenti inediti s ulla dimora di Leonardo da Vinci in
Francia nel 1517 e 1518”, in Archivio storico lombardo, XXXI, ii, 1904, pp. 389-410,
reprinted in the author’s Scritti Vinciani, raccolti a cura di Arrigo Solmi, Florence,
1924, pp. 339-359.
4 Giorgio Vasari, Le Vite de’ più eccellenti Pittori, Scultori e Architetti, Florence, 1568;
in the standard critical edition by Milanesi (1906), p. 97: “[…] venne al suo tempo
a Milano il re di Francia; onde pregato Lionardo di far qualche cosa bizzarra, fece
un lione, che camminò diversi passi, poi s’aperse il petto e mostrò tutto pien di
gigli” ([…] at his time the King of France came to Milan, and having Leonardo
been asked to make something fanciful, he made a lion, which walked several
steps, and then opened its chest and showed that it was full of lilies).
5 G.P. Lomazzo, Trattato dell’Arte della Pittura, Scultura et Architettura […] diviso
Lomazzo also recalls (1590 ), among the technological virtuosities
of Leonardo, “the way of making lions move by way wheels”6, or
rather a system of cogs.
THE PRESENT essay pertains to the first conjectural recon-
struction of Leonardo da Vinci’s lion, based on the study of the
mechanisms of French automatons from the period, when it may
be supposed that the memory of Leonardo’s renowned automaton
was still fresh. It is reasonable to assume that its destiny could well
be followed in the creation of automatic machines in France, up
to the end of the eighteenth century. In particular, our attention
focuses on the mechanism of Maillard’s horse of 1733 (Fig. 1). All
the cogs used in that device were already well known at the end of
the fifteenth century, and many of them can be found in drawings
in Leonardo’s manuscripts (Fig. 2).
During the last three months of 1513, Leonardo was in Florence,
where a menagerie of lions was located behind Palazzo della Si-
gnoria. For this reason, the road leading from Piazza San Firenze to
the Logge del Grano is still called Via dei Leoni. On a sheet from
his French period, in Codex Atlanticus, f. 249 r-a [673 r], next to
a small plan, the words “room of the lions of Florence” appear. It
is therefore extremely likely that it was in Florence that Leonardo
was able to study the movements of lions closely, in order to emu-
late them mechanically in an effective way (Fig. 3).
As for the site of the performance of the mechanical marvel, it
is possible to reconstruct precisely the route of Francis I’s trium-
phal entry into Lyon, culminating in the surprise presentation of
Leonardo’s automaton.
In the far north of the city stood the “Vase Gate”, which opened
to let in the royal procession as it arrived from the North of France.
A heraldic lion was sculpted on the gate, and for this reason it is
sometimes referred to as the “Lion’s Gate”. The pediment bears
the motto from the beginning of the sixteenth century: “One
God, one King, one Faith, one Law”. The arms of France were
painted on this gate in 1490 by Jean Perreal, the famous painter
in sette libri, Milan, 1584; in the standard critical edition by Roberto P. Ciardi, i.e.
Gian Paolo Lomazzo, Scritti sulle arti, Pisa, 1973-1974, Vol. II (1974), p. 96: “Secondo
quanto mi ha raccontato Francesco Melzi […] una volta, dinanzi a Francesco
primo re di francia, fece camminare di sua posta in una sala un leone fatto con
mirabile artificio e dopoi fer mare, aprendosi il petto tutto ripieno di gigli e di-
versi fiori”.
6 Id., Idea del Tempio della Pittura, Milan, 1590, in the Ciardi critical edition, op.
cit., Vol. I (1973), p. 259: “[…] insegnò il modo di far volare gli uccelli, andar i leoni
per forza di ruote e fabbricare animali mostruosi”.
who was also well known for his friendship with Leonardo. The
three angels and a lion, carved around the shield, were sculpted by
Nicolas Leclerc (Archives Municipales de Lyon, cote BB 19 and
BB 20). The royal procession continued along one of the main
roads that crossed the city from North to South (Fig. 4)7. The first
road ran along the right bank of the River Saône, along Borgneuf,
between the hill and the river, before cutting through the larger
neighbourhoods of Saint-Paul and Saint-Jean.
The procession was then reunited in Rue Mercière, before go-
ing along Rue Confort, and across Saint-Nizier Square and Rue
Grenette towards the near centre, thanks to the bridge over the
Rhône, where the royal procession stopped on the second main
road, Cours Lafayette. The procession consisted of the King with
Queen Claude, the Constable, René of France, and the Marshal
of France, Trivulzio. They were preceded by a long procession of
bishops, mitred abbots, the seneschal, the twelve councillors of
Lyon, the procurator, the notables and lastly the bourgeois bearing
gifts for the King, including the Florentine merchants dressed in
crimson with precious gifts, possibly including Leonardo’s me-
chanical lion.
The goldsmith Jehan Lèpere created the golden lion presented to
Francis I in 1515, as well as the golden cups given to Queen Claude
and the Queen Regent (Archives Municipales de Lyon, cote BB,
35, cc 638-63g). The golden lion was seated and held the shield of
the city of Lyon in its paws.
It seems that Jean Perréal (Fig. 5), the official court painter, played
a marginal role in Francis I’s solemn entry into the city of Lyon in
1515. Only a year later, however, on October 30, 1516, the Council
elected to organise the entry of the Queen, that included many
Florentines and was known as the Consulate, entrusted Perréal
with the task of producing the decoration and stage design for the
solemn entry of Queen Claude, on March 2, 1517, across the bridge
over the Rhône.
Serious financial difficulties made it hard for the city of Lyon to
prepare a suitable solemn entry for Francis I in 1515. However, the
desire to preserve the privileges given to the city by Charles VIII
led the Lyonese community to make a great effort. The deco-
rations were entrusted to Jean Yvonnet and Jean Richier. There
were seven big decorations and eight smaller ones, while around
50 actors were involved in the procession. Guillaume Le Roy, who
7 The two main roads which cross the city were already evident on the map
of Lyon in 1547, preser ved in the Municipal Archive of Lyon, and they are
much older.
is in all probability the author of the miniatures in the manuscript
L’entrée de François I, Roy de France, en la cité de Lyon le 12 juillet 1515,
was among the artists who took part in the entry. The manuscript,
housed in the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel8, has a
few pages missing, but it includes miniatures illustrating the most
salient moments of the King’s entry. Unfortunately there is no im-
age of Leonardo’s lion.
The automatic lion with its complex functions (Fig 6) – it walked,
sat on its hind legs, and opened its chest with lilies coming out
of it – made a great impression on its contemporaries. The rôle
of the Florentine colony in the organisation of the celebrations
for Francis I explains the choice of the lion, as an explicit refer-
ence to the motherland: the lion, known as “il Marzocco” is
the symbol of Florence, and it was made famous by Donatello’s
The choice of lilies, or fleur-de-lis, was not incidental either, as
the flower was the coat-of-arms both of France and of Florence.
The involvement of the Florentine colony in the celebrations for
Francis I also had a specific political significance. They were pay-
ing homage to the powerful monarch, with whom the Medici
Pope, Leo X, hoped to form an alliance. It was not by chance that
the Lyonese celebration took place, as has been mentioned, be-
tween the marriage of the Pope’s brother, Giuliano de’ Medici to
the King’s aunt, at the beginning of 1515, and the Pope’s meeting
with Francis I in Bologna at the end of the same year. Probably,
when the automatic lion was set in motion in front of the King,
the following poem was recited for the occasion, based on what
has been reported:
Fort fut la sagesse
Pour percer ung rampant
Car amour qui la gesse
L’avoit choysie à part,
Traict a l’age plus décent
Avoit entre cent. 9
In translation:
It was very wise / To set up a Rampant Lion / Since the love
which surrounded it / Had been chosen separately, / A gesture
8 Ms. 86.4 extravagantium, Biblioteque Ducale de Wolfenbuttel.
9 G. Guigue, L’Entrée de François Premier… en la cité de Lyon, Lyon, 1899.
in the most suitable age / Which it could have had among one
In addition to inducing wonder and amazement, the lion invent-
ed by Leonardo is also important in the history of science for
two reasons. These are: the counterbalance mechanism of the au-
tomaton, and its “escapement”, the two inventions necessary for
making it work. Both are drawn in separate figures in Leonardo’s
manuscripts (Figs 7 and 8). And so they were well known to Leon-
ardo and may have been used by him together in order to create
his lion, as I conjecture in my reconstruction.
Conceptually, this shifts backwards, and credits Leonardo with the
invention of the pendulum clock, which needs an escapement and
counterbalance in order to work. The invention of the pendulum
clock is traditionally attributed to Christian Huygens, in 1673 (cfr.
Ernst Mach, The Science of Mechanics).
It is also true that we have no surviving drawings by Leonardo
showing the combined use of a counterbalance mechanism and
an escapement for the creation of a pendulum clock. Also for our
reconstruction of the lion, we used the escapement and the idea of
counterbalance separately (in two different systems).
As early as 1910 Antonio Favaro had already maintained the pos-
sibility of Leonardo’s knowledge and use of the pendulum. This
with a text appropriately quoted by Giuseppe Boffito in his Gli
strumenti della scienza o la scienza degli strumenti of 1929:
In Leonardo’s opinion, the constant aim of his research was to
achieve a more suitable division of time, and a more accurate mea-
surement, neither of which were permitted by the clocks which
were then in use, which functioned using sand, water or wheels.
He realised that if the old methods of escapement were used to
moderate those objects, so that they did not run down excessively
quickly, they did not set the time. He showed how it was possible
to avoid jars and applied a balance wheel.
Or rather, for a moment, as various sketches in the Codex Atlan-
ticus show, he had the fortunate intuition of making use of a pen-
dulum. Since elsewhere he returns to certain links between these
and other clocks, we must not rule out the possibility that, in some
way, he went further.10
10 Antonio Favaro, Leonardo nella storia delle scienze sperimentali, in Leonardo da
Vinci. Conferenze fiorentine, Milan, 1910, p. 157, as quoted by Giuseppe Boffito, Gli
strumenti della scienza e la scienza degli strumenti con l’illustrazione della tribuna di
Galileo, Florence, 1929, p. 7.
NEWLY DISCOVERED evidence pertaining to Leonardo’s
projects for the construction of a mechanical lion has recently
been provided by Jill Burke with an essay published in the Oxford
Art Journal of 2006.11 This is a document found in the Biblioteca
Nazionale in Florence about a mechanical lion that Leonardo cre-
ated in 1509 for the entry of King Louis XII into Milan. The docu-
ment (Fondo Principale II.IV.171) reads as follows:
For the King’s entry into Milan, as well as other performances,
Leonardo da Vinci, the famous Florentine painter, devised an inter-
vention. He created a lion, above the gate, which was lying down,
and then stood up as the King entered the city: with its claws it
opened its chest and drew out some blue spheres full of golden lil-
ies, which it then threw down and scattered on the ground. Then
it dragged out its heart and pressing it, made more golden lilies
come out. The Marzocco of the Florentines symbolised by that
animal had its innards full of lilies: the King stopped in front of this
performance, which he found very pleasing, and it made him very
This appears to be the description of an earlier, different lion, in-
vented by Leonardo, which did not walk, and which was probably
equipped with a simpler mechanism. From a lying down position,
the lion appeared to rise up on its hind legs, thanks to a cylinder-
shaped rod that rose from the ground level, and moved the front
part of the lion’s body upwards. A similar mechanism is illustrated
in our Fig. 10 of an automaton from 1600, preserved in an English
When the King entered Milan, the entire city was full of hope
and enthusiasm for the man who had conquered the Venetians, the
undefeated enemies of the Milanese for a long time. After his vic-
tory at Agnadello, Louis XII made his entry on July 1, 1509. In ad-
dition to the lion, he also supervised the decoration of buildings
and roads with stories with depicting battlefields and scenes of the
triumphal return of the king. Quite possibly Leonardo himself was
to lend a hand to the executors – not only his pupils – entrusted
with the task to carry out his ideas and designs for the realization
of this complex decorative program, as Baldassare Oltrocchi alone,
in the late eighteenth century, had already concluded on the basis
a detailed account in Bernardino Arluno’s De Bello Veneto, known
11 Jill Burke, “Meaning and Crisis in the Early Sixteenth Century: Interpreting
Leonardo’s Lion”, in Oxford Art Journal, XXIX, no.1, March 2006, pp. 77-91.
to him in the original Latin text in a codex of the Ambrosian
Library, Milan (Lett. A, no. 107 on folio 119)12, from which he pub-
lishes a large excerpt, as follows (see Figs. 11-13 for the full Latin
text of Arluno’s De Bello Veneto as splendidly published in Leiden
in the eighteenth century13 ):
Erecti quippe triumphales arcus recolendum maiestate sua Ludovi-
cum, rerumque magnificentia gestarum admirabilem, dum sese
Jovis in arcem ex delubro Virginali recipit triviis compitisque pro-
gressum excipiebant: ibi totius belli series disposta, effigiataeque
levibus penicillis imagines intervivebant: digesta membratim per
tabulas forosque con glutinati belli materia discernebatur: re- flo-
rescebant vegeti spiritus redivivaque Ludovico ferocitas insolesce-
bat, cum sese tanto apparatu totque legionibus oppositum hosti
terra marique potentissimo pictura planiore relegeret: […]
Suos inibi Proceres de re bellica disserentes omnemque suscepti
finiendique belli rationem diligentius explicantes admirabatur: se
quoque medium inter eos sedentem exigentemque de re dubia
singolorum opinionem […].
Incredibili voluptate spectabat: nec procul insertis pontis compage
fluminisque traiectu restrictos hostes attonitosque proruentium
impetu Gallorum conspicabantur horrentem Livianum immitique
picturae vultu praeferocem cunctatorem Petilianum, prudentesque
togatos inter bellatores ducturesque fortissimos agentes cernebat
[…] Ludovico vero consiliis eorum insultabundus adversabatur, in
ipsaque picturati staminis lecitone cuneis omnibus impulsis suaque
ad mota acie diffusam hostilem militiam imprimebat, scindebat,
sternebat: artificum praedoctae manus tantoque opere exaequando
laboriosae suspensas miris modis lineas inducebant, conflectebant,
dirrigebant: tum vivis coloribus et spirante fuco diversarum for-
marum imagines speciesque rerum mollissimas in ipsos motus
palpitantibus venis ac membris connitentibus animabant; crederes
equos tinnire, plangere solum, sanguinem fluere; praecipites hinc
Gallos, ruentes illinc venetos, distentis telis, excitisque viribus con-
correre, permisceri, confligere: adeo exacta omnia, suisque finibus
12 S. Ritter, Baldassare Oltrocchi e le sue memorie storiche su la vita di Leonardo da
Vinci, Rome, 1925, pp. 33-35. Cfr. Carlo Pedretti, Il genio tuttofare […], in Corriere
della Sera, January 5, 2008, p. 28, and by the same author, Leonardo & io, Milan,
2008, pp. 548-551 and 553-555.
13 Milan, Ambrosian Library, Ms. Lett. A, no. 107 on f. 119, as excerpted by Bal-
dassare Oltrocchi c. 1777. Cfr. S. Ritter, op. and loc. cit.; the complete manuscript
was edited in Leiden in the eighteenth century. The titlepage and the pertinent
pages of this rare pubblication are reproduced in Figs 11-13 from the copy that I
donated to The Pedretti Foundation, Los Angeles.
terminata, insuflato coloribus spiritu fervens pictura vegetabat […].
At in ipsa spetaculorum serie praeculto pollice digesta omnia vi-
ventibusque lineis effigiata multo lumine corruscabant longo esa-
mine spaciosisque marginibus illustria viri facinora censebantur
et cum admiranda omnia spectatores olim audissent nunc omnia
cominus admirabiliora cernebant, atque cum singula magni Du-
cis acta prospicerent, tantoque sudore, ac sanguine madido set ir-
rorantes artus intuerentur captivum protinus et ad pedes Regis
stantem Livianum suspiciebant […] exinde profugi milites con-
fusaeque omnium bellatorum turmae tanti viri captura, tantoque
abisso Duce ex ipsis picturae claustris amentes alienique protinus
erumpebant […]. Harum tali erat rerum species talique adumbratae
artificis ministerio figurae colribus infusis viventes agebant: allec-
tabat animos voluptate titillantes miraculorum speciosa lectio. Sed
inter omnes Rex ipse magno singulis spectaculorum intersticiis af-
fectu distinebatur: tum vero laetitiis omnibus incessit extimuitque
pleno dilatatus impetu, cum ad ipsam Jovis arcem deventum est. Ibi
caelo moles educta stabat, arcuque conflexa triplici fornicabatur:
bipartenti capacissimoque Regem adita gratanter excipiens univer-
sus terrarum orbis axe commuto tremefactisque cardinibus adven-
tanti Ludovico patebat, imperantique praecelso troni sui fastigio
parere reverenter acclinarique cuncta videbantur. […] Haec variis
impressa praescriptaque figuris Ludovicus seriatim perlegens, om-
nemque summa cum voluptate picturam ex alto perlustrans flaccidi
set inanibus oculos nutrimenti pascebat.
In translation:
In actual fact the triumphal arches that had been constructed were
intended to welcome Ludovico, who was to be honoured for his
dignity and who could be admired for the magnificence of his
achievements, which proceeded through crossroads and junctions
on their way from the temple of the Virgin [S. Maria delle Grazie]
to the fortress of Jupiter [Sforza Castle]. Here a carefully ordered
sequence of the events of the whole of the war took shape, with
the images depicted using fine brushes. […]
Piece after piece, using the panels and the cells, the topic of the
war as a whole was divided. The determined attitude flourished
and Ludovico was proud of the restored dignity, seeing once more
a very clear representation of himself facing the extremely power-
ful enemy on land and sea with lots of war machines and many
legions […]
He is shown admiring his nobles who were discussing the issues of
the war and carefully explaining all the reasons for starting or stop-
ping the war […] and he watches with great pleasure as he himself
sits in their midst and asks each one for their opinion on a doubt-
ful point […] Not far away, the horrified Liviano and the wary
Petiliano with a very proud expression in the painting observe the
enemies oppressed by the structure of the connected bridge and
by the crossing of the river, as they are dumbfounded by the attack
of the Gauls who are hurling themselves against them. Petiliano
caught a glimpse of the wise lawyers who worked amongst war-
riors and very courageous commanders.[…] In truth Ludovico was
very insolent and opposed their decisions, and in the same inter-
pretation of the painted panel, after having pushed forwards all the
wedges [battle formations in the form of wedges], and having put
his crushing formation into action, he divided and laid low the
vast army of the enemies. The expert and industrious hands
of the artists showed great ability when it came to produc-
ing such a big work, as they drew, curved and drafted fine
lines. Then with bright shades and the crucial inspiration
of colour they gave life to the images of the various fig-
ures and the extremely graceful depictions of things with
throbbing veins and tense limbs showing real movement.
You can almost hear the horses neighing, and see the land
suffering and the blood flowing.
On one side the Gauls throw themselves into battle, and on the
other side the army of Veneto collapses, as weapons are hurled, and
elated men run as they mingle and fight. At a certain point, blazing
with the vital spirit inspired by the colours, the painting gives life
to all the things that are complete and set within its boundaries
[…]. However in the same sequence of the depictions, everything,
starting with the very elegant fingers that are portrayed using lines
that make them seem real, gleams because of all the light. The great
achievements of the man were carried out by the long formations
and wide margins, and while once the spectators had heard all
these admirable things with their own ears, now they were given a
close-up view of even more admirable things.
Observing the individual actions of the great commander, and dis-
cerning the limbs which were drenched with so much sweat and
blood, close-up they admired Liviano who had been taken pris-
oner and who stood at the king’s feet […] After that they saw the
soldiers fleeing and the swarms of warriors who were certain of
defeat after the capture of such a great man.
Having lost such a great commander, straight afterwards they
hurled themselves out of the prison of the painting itself, beside
themselves with rage and deranged […]. All these things looked
beautiful, and the figures, depicted with great skill by the artist,
looked as if they were real thanks to the infusion of colours. The
marvellous interpretation captivated the minds of those who de-
lighted in the wonders with great pleasure. However, of all of them,
the kind himself was entertained with great emotion by each inter-
val of the performance. In actual fact he avoided any happiness and
was afraid, with his fear increased by a great force when he came
to the fortress of Jupiter itself. The massive structure was there, led
down from the heavens, and formed a triple arch.
Everybody welcomed the king with great joy, after the very large
axis of the double door had been moved and the hinges had been
shaken, it opened and Ludovico appeared. Everything seemed to
obey with respect and bow to the emperor, who was very high due
to the pediment of his throne […].
Ludovico examined this succession of engraved and depicted
things in various figures and looked up carefully at each painting,
with great pleasure in his eyes and with languid and incorporeal
This extraordinary account has the vividness and accuracy of an
eyewitness, and therefore I confine myself to emphasise the begin-
ning of the description of the grand and impressive apparatus of
celebrative paintings of temporary nature that only now we know
was carried out by a team of painters under Leonardo’s direct su-
pervision at the same time as he was personally producing a first
version of his mechanical lion. As Carlo Pedretti has kindly told
me, it is almost incredible that no other memory should have sur-
vived of this major work. According to him, in Arluno’s descrip-
tion one could well perceive echoes of many aspects of Leonardo’s
theoretical approach to the theme of war in general and battles
in particular, as in the case of his own Battle of Anghiari, another
great project of just a few years earlier, which has been taken as a
possible source for the bas-reliefs by the Juste brothers – a family
of Florentine sculptors, the Giusti, based in Amboise14 in their
monumental tomb for Louis XII and Anne de Bretagne at Saint-
Denis made when Leonardo was in Amboise and according to a
program by Jean Perréal, Leonardo’s friend and colleague who had
certainly seen in Milan the temporary paintings of 150915. Thus
one may also conclude that something of the solemn and festive
orchestration inherent in the overall decorative program here so
brilliantly described by Bernardino Arluno, is also reflected in Bra-
mantino’s Trivulzio Months, the celebrated series of tapestries now
at the Sforza Castle, and also dating from 150916.
14 For the Giusti family, naturalized French as Juste, see A. de Montaiglon, “La
famille des Juste en France”, in Gazette des Beaux Arts, XIV, 1876, pp. 363 et seq.
For the Leonardo echoes in the bas-reliefs on the tomb of Louis XII and Anne
of Bretagne at Saint-Denis according to a program provided by Jean Perréal, see
Barbara Hochstetler Meyer, “Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari: Proposals for Some
Sources and a Reflection”, in The Art Bulletin, LXVI, 1984,pp. 367-382 (see also
the letter by Mark J. Zucker and the author’s reply in the same periodical, Vol.
LXVII, 1985, pp. 153-154). By Hochstetler Meyer, see also her preceding paper
“New Documents Relative to the Date of Death of Antoine Juste and the Tomb
of Louis XII and Anne de Bretagne in Saint-Denis”, in Gazette des Beaux-Arts,
LXXXIX, 1972, pp. 251-252, as well as her “Jean Perréal and Portraits of Louis
XII, in Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, XL, 1982, pp. 41-56. And finally, see Carlo
Pedretti, “Il cavallo come simbolo”, in Léonard de Vinci entre France et Italie: “mirroir
profonde et sombre”. Acts du Colloque International de l’Université de Caen, 3-4
octobre 1996, Caen, 1999, pp. 131-145, in particolar p. 137. See also the Introduc-
tion by the same author’s edition of the corpus of the drawings by Leonardo da
Vinci and his circle in the collection of the Venice Academies (Florence, 2003) ,
p. 42, note 72.
15 Perréal was with Louis XII at Agnadello as the King’s painter with the task
of recording the various phases of the campaign. Cfr. R. De Maulde La Claviére,
Jean Perrál dit Jean de Paris Peintre de Charles VIII, de Louis XII et de François Ier ,
Paris, 1896, pp. 34-35. See also Carlo Pedretti, “Il ‘Pierre Sala’ di Jean Perréal”. In
l’Erasmo, no. 24, Novembre-December 2004, pp. 39-40.
16 The Bramantino tapestr ies were made for Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, Marshal
of France. Cfr. L’Opera completa di Bramantino e Bramante pittore. Presentazione
di Gian Alberto Dell’Acqua. Apparati critici e filologici di Germano Mulazzani,
Milan, 1978, pp. 88-92.
The Staging of The Besieged Fortress
Luca Garai
IN HIS seminal paper on Leonardo’s last years in France, Edmon-
do Solmi, in 1904 (and again in his Scritti vinciani of 1924, pp. 337-
359), published a long letter that Stazio Gadio wrote from Amboise
to Francesco Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, on May 16, 1518, contain-
ing a full account of a festive special event organized at Amboise
following the celebrations for the baptism of the Dauphin and for
the wedding of Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, nephew of Pope Leo
X, with Maddalena de la Tour d’Auvergne, niece of King Francis I.
A concluding event in honor of the young King was to evoke his
victorious “fatto d’arme di Marignano” of September 13-14, 1515.
This spectacular re-enactment, which Gadio describes as “la batta-
glia del castello”, took place on Friday, May 14, and Saturday, May
15, 1518. “Your Excellency”, writes Gadio, “has to imagine a large pi-
azza, on a side of which there is a sort of fortified circuit, the height
of a man on a horse and with battlements covered inside by paint-
ed drapes to simulate the stones of a wall”1. The description goes
on giving every detail of the fortified place that had transformed
the piazza into the various levels of an embankment with terraces
suitable for the emplacement of the besieging artillery, which is
described as “mortari de ligno cerchiati di ferro, che tiravano, con
la polvere e col focho, con gran strepito, baloni sgonfiati in aere,
quali cadendo sulla piazza balzavano con gran piacer di ogni uno
e senza danno” (iron-rimmed wooden mortars firing air-inflated
balls with great blasting and smoking effects, and these balls, falling
on the piazza, bounced off all over at everyone’s delight and with-
out any damage). “Cosa nova e ben condutta ingegnosamente”
(a new thing and ingeniously well conducted), concludes Gadio.
1 The Gadio document, a long letter to the Duke of of Mantua written from
Amboise on May 16, 1518, as published by Solmi in 1904, gives a detailed account
of the unfolding of the festive event of the feigned assault to a fortress and starts
out with a description of the complex set under artillery fire. The original text
reads as follows: “Vostra Eccellenza se imagini una piazza grande, et da uno capo
uno circuito, quanto è uno homo a cavallo, con li merli coperti tutte di dentro
di tele dipinte a similitudine de muraglie. Tra li due torioni fatti, la piazza era
uno teraglio [terrapieno, i.e. embankment], alto uno homo, sopra il quale era una
travata alta dua braza di ligname; de nanti era la fossa larga circa cinque braza, tra
la qual et il terraglio era tanto spazio quanto porgevalno le grosseze de li torioni,
sulla riva di la fossa fingevasi una muraglia continuata da uno torrione alaltro,
fatto detele dipinte, atacate ad alcuni legni, checilmente si possevano ruinare; di la
medema tela pinta erano coperti li torioni, sopra li quail ventilavano due bandere
di cendal nero, gialo et blancho. Sulli merli et difese erano molti archibusi; sul
terraglio si vedevano alcuni mortari de lingo cerchiati di ferro, che tiravano, con
la polvere e col focho, con gran strepito, baloni sconfiati in aere, quail cadendo su
la piaza balzavano con gran piacer di ogni uno e senza danno: cosa nova et ben
condutta ingegnosamente. Erano anche dentro tre falconeti di metallo che tira-
vano straze et carte, come si costuma, per far strepito senza effetto […]. The ac-
count continues with the description of the unfolding of the event, with special
emphasis on the personal participation of the king in the feigned battle.
It is here that Solmi detects the possible conception and direction
of Leonardo, then aged 64, who shortly later, on June 19 of the
same year, was to stage at Clos Lucé a new edition of his celebrat-
ed Feast of Paradise, first produced at the Sforza Castle in Milan
in 14902. In support of his intuition Solmi adduced the anecdote
reported by Vasari (IV. 46-47) of Leonardo’s moral prank played
in Rome a few years earlier to equate Virtue to the expanding
form of balloons made of animal guts which, from their initial
little space, come to occupy a large room in the process of being
inflated, and making therefore impossible for anyone to stay in
that room3. The moral being that of the Dantesque poca favilla gran
fiamma seconda because Virtue has likewise a little beginning – just
like the guts before being enflated soon to expand to major
proportions in terms of Fame.
In discussing the Gadio document with me, Carlo Pedretti has
rightly pointed out that no such air-inflated “cannon balls” could
possibly be fired by a mortar, whether by wood or iron, with-
out exploding or catching fire immediately. There must have been
some kind of technological device to convey such a special ef-
fect as described by Gadio, perhaps a machine set up just behind
the mortars to propel balls that would appear to come out of
the dense smoke of each conflagration as if fired by the wooden
mortars. Unfortunately there are no technological studies in any
in the several sheets of Leonardo’s manuscripts identified as dating
with certainty from after 1517, when Leonardo was in France. The
only exception, brought to my attention by Dr. Pedretti himself, is
on the verso of a large sheet of geometrical studies in the Codex
Atlanticus, f. 106 r-a & 106 v-a [294 v], which is closely related to
f . 103 r-b [284 r] dated May 22, 1517, by Leonardo himself. To my
2 The Paradiso play organized in Milan in 1490 is known from the libretto in
Bernardo Bellincioni’s Rime of 1493 and from documents published by Edmon-
do Solmi in 1904. All the pertinent documentary evidence is reviewed and re-
produced along a graphic reconstruction in my book Gli automi di Leonardo /
Leonardo’s Automata. Introduction by Paolo Galluzzi, Bologna, 2007, pp. 37-56. An
alternative interpretation of the mechanism is in a forthcoming publication of
mine that will include a critical edition of the account on the replica of the same
play staged at Amboise in 1518.
3 The Vasar i anecdote in the 1568 edition of his Lives (IV. 46-47) reads as follows:
“Usava spesso far minutamente digrassare e purgare le budella d’un castrato e
talmente venir sottili, che si sarebbono tenuto in palma di mano; e aveva messo
in un’altra stanza un paio di mantici da fabbro, ai quail metteva un capo delle
dette budella, e gonfiandole ne riempiva la stanza, la quale era grandissima; dove
bisognava che si recasse in un canto chi v’era, mostrando quelle trasparenti e pi-
ene di vento dal tenere poco luogo in principio, esser venute a occuparne molto,
agguagliandole alla virtù”. Nowhere in Leonardo’s manuscripts is found a refer-
ence to Fame as growing out of a small beginning. See, however, Carlo Pedretti,
Leonardo & io, Milan, 2008, pp. 182-194.
knowledge, the only authors who have considered this sheet are
Augusto Marinoni in his edition of the codex (Vol. IV, 1976) and
Carlo Pedretti in his chronology of its sheets after “restoration”
(Vol. I, 1978). Their comments are as follows:
[Marinoni] Tutto a matita. Nella metà inferiore grande ruota e
vari disegni meccanici. Nella metà superiore dominano gruppi di
palle sovrapposte di varie dimensioni. Alcuni numeri sparsi e due
brevi scritte.
In alto:
Ogni palla si posa sopra 3 altre palle. […].
[Pedretti] Black chalk. Rough sketches of mechanical devices,
perhaps for a stage set. A tentative explanation of these sketches is
given in the publications listed below.
Pedretti, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, November 1970, p . 302; Romorantin
Palace [1972], pp. 88, 318 (note 9).
Of particular interest are Pedretti’s remarks in his book on the
Romorantin Palace of 1972, pp. 318-319:
The sketches are so rough and slight that it is impossible to un-
derstand what they represent. One shows a pyramid of balls and
is inscribed “ogni palla / si posa sopra / 3 altre palle”, but it may
illustrate just a principle of mechanics. Below is the note “ecciesso
d’ecciesso”. The other sketches show the framework of a round
platform, with a system of pulley and cables. One may suspect that
they refer to some stage apparatus because of the diagram of steps,
which can be interpreted as the structure for the spectators’ seats
(one such structure is clearly shown in Codex Atlanticus 286 r-a
[778 r], c. 1497-1500). The drawings do not necessarily refer to the
mechanical device for the Paradiso play that Leonardo may have
organized in Amboise in 1518, but they can be considered at least
his latest known technological studies.
At Pedrettis instigation I have therefore approached the problem
of interpreting those studies to find out that they could well
pertain to the staging of The Besieged Fortress, the feast orga-
nized in Amboise on May 15, 1518, as described by Stazio Ga-
dio. According to such a description the feigned cannon balls
eventually succeeded to open a breach in a fortress made of
wood and canvas, and this in spite of their bouncing all over
with the exhilarating effect of a massive artillery fire, where
the thick smoke of firing mortars was to conceal the effective
performance of ingenious catapults hidden behind each mortar.
Obviously Gadio described what he had just seen, namely the
“special effect”, and not the way to achieve it. Indeed, as Pedretti
maintains, balls made of animals guts and filled with air could
never be fired without exploding immediately at the blast of the
gun powder. And, on the other hand, a catapult could hardly be
described as a “mortaro”, even though the Latin term mortarium
was still used in fifteenth century Italy to designate a stone-hurling
machine, i.e. a catapult4.
My interpretation of Leonardo’s faint sketches of what can be
considered “at least his latest known technological studies” has
resulted in the construction of two models (a preliminary one
to test the principle of mechanics inherent in the employment
of an off-center wheel, and another more elaborate in terms of
accessories) and these have to be imagined in the overall set as
described by Gadio.
The diagram of steps is interpreted as part of the machine, not as
seats for spectators, and therefore as the way for an attendant to
step up to keep loading the machine, ball after ball. By releasing
a spring inside a cylinder the off-center wheel placed vertically
causes the quick action of the hurling of each ball. A sequence
of interpretative diagrams may help to grasp the ingenuity of the
simple but most effective device. In order to produce a function-
ing model careful consideration had to be placed on the choice of
the wood as well as on the thickness of the single parts to conform
as closely as possibly to Leonardo’s faint sketches. The sketches of
triangular groups of circles could well be taken taken to represent
the supplies of piled-up balls.
The final model was intended for the permanent Leonardo ex-
hibition organized at Clos Lucé in 20095, while the preliminary
prototype is now placed in the library of The Pedretti Foundation
at the villa of Castel Vitoni at Lamporecchio overlooking the City
of Vinci, of which Signor Pedretti is now Honorary Citizen.
4 Cfr. the Dizionario etimologico italiano by Carlo Battisti and Giovanni Alessio
(Florence 1975), sub voce: “XV sec.: macchina per lanciare pietre”, hence catapult.
See also the standard dictionaries of the Italian language, i.e. Tommaseo-Bellini
and Battaglia. Of Leonardo’s three references to “mortaio” or “mortaro” in the
Codex Atlanticus (ff. 391 r-a [1082 r], 398 v-e [1109 iii v] e 400 r-a [1112 2]) only
the first one, in the draft of his famous letter to Ludovico Sforza, is to a piece of
artillery; the second is in a list of household objects and the third identifies the
basis of a hydraulic pomp.
5 Léonard de Vinci & la France par Carlo Pedretti […] Chateau du Clos Lucé, Parc
Leonardo da Vinci, Florence, 2009, pp. 154-175. See also the present volume, pp.
xxx-xxx, infra.
“And one can’t even tell what kind of an invention is that”
Carlo Pedretti
ONE OF Leonardo’s most famous drawings is present in two
versions on two of the first sheets of the Codex Atlanticus,
ff. 9 r-a [31 r] and 9 v-a [33 r], the first being the preliminary sketch
of the second. The second and most impressive drawing was in fact
one of the few that used to be shown to traveling foreigners who
visited the Ambrosiana Addison (1672-1719) was shown precisely
this sheet in the codex, which he was then to describe, in 1736,
as “a sketch of bombs and mortars as they are now used (empha-
sis added)1. Another distinguished visitor, Charles-Nicolas Cochin
(1715-1790), mentions the same drawing as depicting something
that was in use at his time and backed his opinion by saying that
the drawing was not by Leonardo but much later2.
1 See the exhibition catalogue by Pietro C. Marani, Fortezze, bastioni e cannoni.
Disegni di Leonardo dal Codex Atlanticus, Milan, Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana,
2009, no. 4, pp. 52-55. Reference is made to the fifth edition and posthumous
Remarks on several parts of Italy, &c., in the years 1701, 1702, 1703 by the late right
honourable Joseph Addison, esq., London, printed for J. and R. Tonson, 1736 (not
in Verga), pp. 32-33. It is puzzling that Addison at such an early date should refer
to bombs and mortars “as they are now used” when the shrapnel was invented
considerably later and first used in 1808.
2 Charles-Nicolas Cochin, Voyage d’Italie ou Recueil de Notes sur les Ouvrages de
Peinture & de Sculpture, qu’on voit dans le principales villes d’Italie […], Paris, 1758,
Tome III, pp. 48-49: “On y fait remarquer des bombes, par où l’on pretend faire
voir qu’elles avoient étè trouvées par lui dés ces temps-là; mais il est aisé de voir
qu’elles sont dessinées d’une autre main” (not in Verga). No histoirical bibliog-
raphy on these drawings is available. Marani (2009) only cites three publications
from the 1970s and 1980s. In my The Codex Atlanticus of Leonardo da Vinci. A
Catalogue of its newly restored sheets (1978), I mention Dibner (1906), p. 16, fig. 12,
Feldhaus (1913), p. 41, and Parson (1968), pp. 47-48, fig. 16. Parson’s book (Engi-
neers and Engineering in The Renaissance by William Barclay Parson, Cambr idge,
Massachusetts, 1968; first edition, New York, 1939), loc. cit., contains a perceptive
reading of the drawing that has apparently passed unnoticed: “A further exten-
sion of this idea of rapid and scattered fire [i.e. CA, f. 340 r-b, nunc 929 i r] shows
two mortars discharging explosive shells and shrapnel (CA, f. 9 v-a [33 r]) (fig. 16).
The large container ball appears to have a jointed covering. This was perhaps of
leather or some other material that could be sewed along the edges. One of the
covering is shown broken, permitting the small enclosed balls to scatter. To the
left, the balls are shown in the act of exploding. Leonardo thus illustrated shells,
grape and shrapnel. The mortar themselves were elevated by a toothed semicircle
operated by a hand crack”. Of the early publications pertaining to this draw-
ing it is appropriate to mention the edition of Disegni di Leonardo da Vinci incisi
e pubblicati da Carlo Giuseppe Gerli […], Milan, 1784, for the first reproduction
of both drawings on pl. XXXVIII, with a brief entry by Carlo Amoretti, who
mentions again the “mortai a bombe” in his Memorie storiche su la vita, gli studj,
e le opere di Lionardo da Vinci to introduce the 1804 edition of Leonardo’s Treatise
on Painting, p. 150, where j. B. Venturi’s Essay of 1797, pp. 54-55, is mentioned for
the reference to a possible antecedent of Leonardo’s device. Worthy of mention is
also the manuscript by Giuseppe François and Luigi Ferrario, Disegni d’architettura
militare di Leonardo da Vinci colle spiegazioni del medesimo tratti dagli originali, Milano
1841, prepared for publication but left unpublished as the Codex Saluzzo 312 in
the Royal Library at Turin, a first systematic survey of Leonardo’s studies of
military architecture and artillery in the Codex Atlanticus made known only in
recent times. The finished drawing of “Mortai da bomba” is reproduced on pl.
XXXV as fig. 202, with the following comment on p. 32: “Due mortai da bomba
This finished drawing (black chalk, metal point, pen and ink, dilut-
ed ink, wash and reworking on the left side) measures 21.8 x 41 cm.
It is therefore larger than the preliminary sketch, which measures
20 x 38 cm. Both represent two mortars (in the first sketch they
are on wheels for transportation) shown as firing simultaneously
a barrage of large cannon balls that appear to be made up of two
cup-like sections – or possibly more than two – sewn together by
some kind of strips but soon to be thrown asunder in the air caus-
ing their contents – smaller balls – made to explode like shrapnel
but only as they hit the ground, curiously conveying the festive
connotation of a “special effect”. It is difficult to understand the
ultimate effectiveness of the device, truly an unrealistic device
considered the artillery engineering at that time, long before the
advent of nineteenth-century shrapnel, thus called after General
Henry Shrapnel (1761-1842) of the British Army who invented it3.
No surprise then that in a letter of 1704 the mathematician Father
Stampa, a friend of Ludovico Antonio Muratori, asked to examine
and to evaluate the scientific and technological contents of the
Codex Atlanticus, should express an opinion far from positive, in
particular about “il mortaio a bombe, delle quale uscendo alcune
del mortaio spaccate nel mezzo, a foggia di coppe, né pure si può
conghietturare che invenzione ella fosse”––the mortar for bombs,
some of which, fired by the mortar, are split in half to look like
cups. And one can’t even tell what kind of an invention is that4.
In times closer to us this drawing has been taken as an anticipation
of the invention of shrapnel fire. In support of this interpretation
in azione. Da questa figura sembra che Leonardo abbia aggiunto alle bombe il
getto delle sostanze pungenti e ideato l’artifizio di mandare con esse una pioggia
di fuoco sulla città assediata come alla fig. 203 [i.e. CA, f. 24 v-a, nunc 72 v]”. The
Codex Saluzzo 312 was well known to Carlo Promis who quotes it extensively
in his edition of the Trattato di architettura civile e militare di Francesco di Giorgio
[Codex Saluzzo 148], Turin, 1841. See p. 48: “due mortai scaglianti piccole palle,
dadi accuminati e palle artificiate […]”. Apparently, Promis did not grasp the
function of the “dadi accuminati” [pointed dice]. For such problems of interpre-
tation, bibliography and historiography, see my edition of the Codex Saluzzo 312
in I Disegni di Leonardo da Vinci e della sua Cerchia nella Biblioteca Reale di Torino
ordinati e presentati da Carlo Pedretti. Con la riproduzione integrale dell’opera inedita
Disegni d’Architettura Militare di Leonardo da Vinci (Ms. Saluzzo 312), Firenze, 1999,
pp. 115-130 (Appendice II) and volume in facsimile reproduction. See also Carlo
Pedretti, “Ms. Saluzzo 312: Disegni di architettura militare di Leonardo da Vinci”,
in Achademia Leonardi Vinci, I, 1988, pp. 107-117.
3 Charles Gibbs-Smith and Gareth Rees, The Inventions of Leonardo da Vinci,
Oxford, 1978, p. 46, consider the mortar designed by Leonardo as a precursor to
one nicknamed Dictator used in 1865 dur ing the American Civil War. Cfr. Bern
Dibner, Machines and Weaponry, in The Unknown Leonardo, edited by Ladislao
Reti, New York, 1974, pp. 166-189, in particular p. 189.
4 Cfr. Federico S. Bassoli, “Un pittore svizzero precursore degli studi vinciani:
Lodovico Antonio David”, in Raccolta Vinciana, XVII, 1954, pp. 261-314, in par-
ticular pp. 273-283.
the fourth paragraph of Leonardo’s famous letter of self-introduc-
tion to Ludovico Sforza, dating from about 1482 when Leonardo
moved to Milan, is often quoted: “I have also plans for making
cannon, very convenient and easy of transport, with which to hurl
small stones in the manner almost of hail, causing great terror to
the enemy from their smoke, and great loss and confusion”5. Of
course this has nothing to do with shrapnel except for sharing the
same principle of “special effect” in terms of a hail of blows, smoke
and confusion. This does not seem to cause much killing but rath-
er “fright” or even “terror” (spavento), so that the enemy is left con
grave suo danno e confusione––with much damage and confusion.
The style of the drawing and of its preliminary sketch points to
the mid-1480s at the time of this letter and of a few drawings
of comparable bombard in the Codex Atlanticus6. Compare also
the sheet of spirited figures of archers with an innovative type of
shield-equipped arch and of a system of running fire ball, which is
explained by two captions: “palla che corre per se medesima” (ball
that runs by itself) and “modo che mostra la palla dentro che gitta
focho e corre voltando” (a view of the ball inside to show how it
spits fire and runs turning around), Inevitably, one thinks of the gi-
randola in the fireworks of nearly a century later, particularly with
Bernardo Buontalenti called in fact Bernardo delle Girandole7.
Studies for such fireballs are on several sheets of Paris Ms. B,
which dates from c. 1487-1490. See in particular ff. 4 r, 30 v, 31
v, 37 r, 50 v, 59 r and 80 v. Of course the greater part of notes
on weaponry and military tactics in this manuscript comes from
accounts of ancient technology and engineering as found in Ra-
musio’s 1482 edition of Valturius’s De re military, but Leonardo, in
addition to reporting the information, often introduces his own
explanation and elaboration of the devices under consideration.
And in doing so, he never loses sight of the possibility of finding
other applications for them. Hence such studies of fire-balls, just
like those on the Paris drawings of archers, which in Ms. B, f. 4
v, are placed next to notes for a festive apparatus and two figure
studies by a pupil. The note to them explains how the ball ignites
5 Codex Atlanticus, f. 391 r-a [1082 r], c. 1482, Richter, § §1340, MacCurdy, Let-
ters, Brizio 1952, p. 631-632: “Ho ancora modi di bombarde comodissime e facili
a portare, et cum quelle gittare minuti saxi ad similitudine di tempesta, et con
el fumo di quella dando grande spavento all’inimico, con grave suo danno e
6 CA, ff. 18 v-b [59 ii v] and 31 r-b [85 ii r], both dating from c. 1485, just like the
two large drawings under consideration.
7 Cfr. Vasari, VII. 614-617. Of course a more detailed account of Buontalenti’s
skills in firework is in Baldinucci, Notizie de’ Professori del disegno, Firenze, 1681,
VII, pp. 3 et seq.
the moment in touches the ground producing much re and
smoke rather than destruction. The same can be said of the notes
explaining the drawings of fireballs on other sheets of the same
manuscript where the antique source
is acknowledged as he mention the “fuoco greco”, the Greek fire,
as made known to the Romans by the architect Callimacus, (f. 30
v). The same device is illustrated on the following f. 31 v in the
context of artillery studies but with a surprisingly revealing note
that MacCurdy omits from his translation of the rest of the page:
“Se darai fuoco a termine, e messa sotto un letto, farai maraviglie.
E acciò non si senta fumo, mischia profumi odoriferi. [Figure]
Questa balla sia di stoppa trita, solfo e pegola, acciò che bruciando,
il nemico non conosca la invenzione” (If you have the ignition
programmed, and have this placed under a bed, you will produce a
marvelous effect. And have a mixture of good-smelling perfumes
to override the smell of smoke. [Figure] Let this ball be made of
chopped up tow, sulphur and pitch, so that, by burning up, the
enemy won’t be able to figure up the invention). Note and illus-
tration are added to a text with figure headed “Clotonbrot” which
reads as follows:
Clotonbrot è una balla gittata da uno trabiccolo, cioè trabocco mi-
nore, la quale è alta uno braccio ed è piena di code di scoppietti, e
traggono tutti in poco spazio di tempo. Questa s’adopera a gittare
dentro a uno bastione, e non ci è rimedio a vietare al suo pestilente
ufficio. In altrove non si è da usare, ché nuocerebbe così a te come
ai tuoi nemici […]
In translation:
Clotonbrot is a ball thrown by a trabiculo, that is a lesser mangonel,
and this ball is a braccio high [about 60 cm] and filled with the
end of cartridges packed all together in a tiny space. It is used for
throwing into a bastion and there is no remedy that avails against
its pestilential effect. Other uses of it should be avoided for it would
do damage to you as well as to the enemy.
This and the other such fireballs in the Fuoco Greco tradition as
recorded by Leonardo in his Ms. B do not match exactly the balls
fired by the two mortars in the Codex Atlanticus drawings dating
from the same time, based as they are on the principle of enclos-
ing them in a larger shell made of two “cups” kept together by
some kind of stitches. But there is also the case of a spherical shell
containing at least eight such balls. This on f. 59 r with the cap-
tion explaining that these balls should be filled with small pieces
of sulphur that would cause people to become stupefied. Hence
the conclusion: “This is the most deadly machine that exists, and
when it hits the ground, the ball in the center is programmed to
ignite the other balls. That ball in the center explodes and scatters
the others, which are programmed to catch fire at the end of an
Ave Maria, and there is a shell outside that covers everything”8.
What this and the notes to other drawings are hinting at is clearly
related to the balls fired by the two mortars in the drawing of the
large sheet under consideration, which is unquestionably informed
to a principle of warfare, although the overall impression is rather
one of a staged performance involving a visual special effect as in
a festive apparatus. And as such it is a problem of interpretation
that may be offered as a working hypothesis along with Dr. Garai’s
brilliant reading of a puzzling French sheet in the Codex Atlan-
ticus, f. 106 r-a, v-a [294 v], the subject of the preceding paper.
Just as a thought then. The mortars may be real or made of wooden
staves held together by branching iron-bands to simulate the real
ones, and as such they could well have fired fire balls that may be
reasonably light, being made up of two cup-like metal shells sewn
together in a way that can easily burst open in the air to release
their contents, that is six smaller balls made of animal guts neatly
arranged around a central core, possibly of wood, shaped in a way
that allows holding them neatly together. Promis calls them “dadi
accuminati”, namely “pointed dice”, but they may be more accu-
This translation is mi ne because the one given by MacCurdy, Warfare, is not
satisfactory. The Italian text reads as fol lows: “Queste balle ancora potreb-
bero essere piene di pezzetti di zolfo, che farebbe tramortire. Questa è la più
mortale macchina che sia, e quando cade, la palla di mezzo dà fuoco a termine
all’altre balle, e la palla di mezzo scoppia e sparge l’altre, le qua il pigliano il
fuoco a termine di un’Ave Maria. E ha di fuor i uno guscio che copre ogni
cosa”. The text goes on specifying the nature and arrangement of the “scop -
pietti” (rockets) inside the “guscio” (shell).
rately described as “dadi a lati curvi”, namely “curvilateral dice”, or
“curvilateral cubes”9. Of course, the drawings are unquestionably
early, c. 1485, and could well have illustrated an elaborate system of
artillery fire over a town or fortress with a barrage of two kinds of
shells, one releasing small balls and the other releasing a cluster of
six medium-size balls firmly kept together around a central core.
Some forty years later, in 1518, Leonardo could well have looked
back to them so as to devise the feigned besiege of a fortress by
replacing the cannon balls with inflated balls made of animal guts.
Both early drawings show two puzzling objects in the sky, those
that I have just dubbed “curvilateral dice”. In the middle of each
side of such objects there is a hole in the center showing that each
cube contains a charge that would ignite as in fireworks each to
release six smaller balls with comparable charges that would ignite
as they touch the ground to begin spinning around. As these balls
eventually land, they produce the exhilarating effect of firework
just like some of the fireballs studied in Ms. B. And so, just as the
Paradiso play of 1490 was staged again at Amboise in 151810, it is not
to be ruled out the possibility that an equally early drawing of
mortar warfare had inspired the 1518 festive event of a new staging
of Bellincioni’s Paradise play as described by Gadio.
9 Carlo Promis in his 1841 edition of Francesco di Giorgio’s treatise on military
and civil architecture, op. et loc. cit. in note 2, supra.
10 The 1490 staging of the Paradiso play is known not only from the Bell-
incioni libretto included in his book of Rime of 1493, but also from documents
published by Solmi in 1904: “La Festa del Paradiso d i Leonardo da Vinci e
Bernardo Bellincion i”, in Archivio Storico Lombardo, XXXI, ii, 1904, pp. 75-89,
repri nted in the author’s Scritti Vinciani raccolti a cura di Arrigo Solmi, Florence,
1924, pp. 1-7. An inter pretat ion of the mechanism, as based on other sour ses as
well, is in Luca Garai, Gli automi di Leonardo / Leonardo’s Automata, Bologna,
2007, pp. 37-56, with ful l documentation and bibliography. Dr. Garai is now
working on the 15 18 replica of it as know from documents also published by
Solmi and based on the description by eyewitnesses as well as on Leonardo
technological studies not yet interpreted. Cfr. Edmondo Solm i, “Documenti
inediti sulla dimora di Leonardo da Vinci in Francia nel 1517 e 1518”, in Archivio
Storico Lombardo, XX XI, ii, 1904, pp. 389-410, reprinted in the author’s Scritti
Vinciani, op. cit., pp. 337-359, in par ticular on pp. 358 -359.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Garai is now working on the 1518 replica of it as know from documents also published by Solmi and based on the description by eyewitnesses as well as on Leonardo technological studies not yet interpreted
The 1490 staging of the Paradiso play is known not only from the Bellincioni libretto included in his book of Rime of 1493, but also from documents published by Solmi in 1904: "La Festa del Paradiso di Leonardo da Vinci e Bernardo Bellincioni", in Archivio Storico Lombardo, XXXI, ii, 1904, pp. 75-89, reprinted in the author's Scritti Vinciani raccolti a cura di Arrigo Solmi, Florence, 1924, pp. 1-7. An interpretation of the mechanism, as based on other sourses as well, is in Luca Garai, Gli automi di Leonardo / Leonardo's Automata, Bologna, 2007, pp. 37-56, with full documentation and bibliography. Dr. Garai is now working on the 1518 replica of it as know from documents also published by Solmi and based on the description by eyewitnesses as well as on Leonardo technological studies not yet interpreted. Cfr. Edmondo Solmi, "Documenti inediti sulla dimora di Leonardo da Vinci in Francia nel 1517 e 1518", in Archivio Storico Lombardo, XXXI, ii, 1904, pp. 389-410, reprinted in the author's Scritti Vinciani, op. cit., pp. 337-359, in particular on pp. 358-359.