Simanaitis Says

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WELL, WE missed celebrating Leonardo da Vinci’s 562nd birthday. It was a few weeks ago on April 15 Old Style, so I can’t even appeal to the Julian-to-Gregorian Calendar update, which would have advanced it to April 15 + 13 = April 28. (See

However, I have a neat bit of da Vinciana I want to share, and there are other da Vinci things worth mentioning.


Le Coffret de Vinci—Decodage des Mysteres de la Renaissance, by Andrew Langley, Evergreen Tachen, 2006.

I found Le Coffret de Vinci in a bookshop in Ste. Germain-des-Prés on the Left Bank of Paris. This boxed collection (coffret is French for case) is more than a book. It’s a 32-page book, Leonardo de Vinci et la Renaissance, a paperboard model of the cathédrale Sante-Marie-de-la-Fleur, a time line of da Vinci’s era, a Grille of Alberti (used by Renaissance artists to establish perspective), a card showing Leonardo’s Last Supper (with its original colors as well as today’s faded version), a booklet of his scientific, engineering and anatomical illustrations (including Vitruvian Man, his correlation of ideal human proportions with geometry), and a plastic model of his ornithopter flying machine.


Le Coffret de Vinci is boxed collection of da Vinci activities.

The text is in French, but plenty of the activities cross language barriers. I haven’t tried to construct cathedral Sainte-Marie-de-la-Fleur yet, but have learned that the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore is the principal church of Florence, Italy, with the largest brick dome ever constructed.


The dome of Saint Mary of the Flower, Florence. Image from Le Coffret de Vinci.

The basilica was consecrated in 1436, 16 years before Leonardo was born in the town of Vinci, part of the Republic of Florence at the time.

Leonardo was an out-of-wedlock son of a wealthy legal notary and a peasant, his birth registered as Lionardo de ser Piero da Vinci, the “ser” indicating that his father had some social standing. From time to time, his father’s influence (and money) came in handy. And Leonardo appears to have supported his peasant-born mother Caterina into her old age.

He apprenticed with the artist Verrocchio, whose workshop was renowned for the finest art in Florence. It’s said Leonardo’s far-superior painting skills caused Verrocchio to put down his own brush and never paint again.


Le Coffret de Vinci is handsomely packaged. The grid on the right can be transformed into a Grille of Alberti. The sketch at left offers connect-the-dot art.

Florence was the center of Christian Humanist culture, and its Medici family offered Leonardo support—in more than the obvious ways. There’s speculation that Medici influence freed Leonardo and three other young men of sodomy charges in 1476. It’s presumed that Leonardo was homosexual, Sigmund Freud a proponent of this view in the late 19th century.


Leonardo’s military engineering sketches. Image from Le Coffret de Vinci.

Archives contain more than 13,000 pages of Leonardo’s science and engineering notes and drawings. His preference for mirror-image cursive writing is well known. What’s new to me is the view that this writing style was not for secrecy. Being left-handed, Leonardo may have simply found it easier to write from right to left.

He was known to be a procrastinator. As one example, Leonardo worked for Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, between 1482 and 1499. One project was a huge equestrian monument for which seventy tons of bronze were set aside. In 1492, Leonardo finally completed the clay model for the horse. By November 1494, Ludovico gave up on the idea and had the bronze cast into cannons defending the city from invasion by Charles VIII of France.

Leonardo apparently had other projects in mind, including his Last Supper, painted in a fragile combination of tempera on gesso during 1495 to 1498.

Charles VIII failed in his Milan invasion, but another French king, Francis I, was successful later and subsequently played an important role in Leonardo’s old age. In 1515, Leonardo presented the king a mechanical lion which could walk forward, open its chest and display a cluster of lilies.

Impressed by Leonardo’s skills, King Francis set him up in Close Lucé, a manor house near the royal residence in Amboise, France, on the river Loire. Leonardo died at Close Lucé in 1519 at age 67.

Legend has it that Francis I cradled Leonardo’s head as he died. Leonardo da Vinci is buried in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert inChateau d’Amboise. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2014

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