Bicycle Diaries: Da Vinci rolled?

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Da Vinci rolled?

Dan Brown's mystery thriller, The Da Vinci Code, as well as the subsequent Tom Hanks film, is not the first attempt to enhance the genius of the already remarkable Renaissance Man. Just google Leonardo da Vinci bicycle; you'll get to choose from 365,000 webpages in English alone.

The widespread belief that Da Vinci invented the bike rests on a discovery of this page in the Codex Atlanticus during it's restoration in 1974. I've inverted it using photoshop to highlight the details. The website of the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza in Florence states that the codex
is the largest collection of Leonardo's manuscript sheets, formed at the end of the sixteenth century by the sculptor Pompeo Leoni, who dismembered many original notebooks.
Ever since, Leonardo's bike has provoked intense controversy. What everyone agrees on is that the elements are surprisingly modern. The drive train, headset, and wheels remind me of a fat-tire retro-cruiser.

The only differences are with the handlebars, frame, seat stem, and of course, it's wooden construction. Imagine steering it. You would have to shift your entire body to turn it left or right. I also think you'ld have a tough time trying to keep from sliding down the seat. And what about splinters?

What nobody agrees on is the bike's authenticity. Again, goolge Leonardo d Vinci's bicycle hoax. That will get you 18,500 English webpages. Roughly a quarter celebrates Italy as the apparent birthplace of the modern bike. Museums from Italy to Australia have Da Vinci exhibits feature full-sized models. In May, Moscow's 6th Open Festival of Arts on Sweet Cherry Woods announced,
It is difficult to find essential differences between Leonardo’s wooden bicycle and its modern analogue. The bicycle’s drawings found during the restoration of Atlantic Codex were so unexpected that they raised doubts and debates among scientists.
It isn't necessarily the unexpected modernity that has made most bike historians skeptical. It's how the bike was discovered. Literary historian Augusto Marinoni announced his find in 1974 with a great deal of fanfare as well as arguments anticipating accusations of a probable hoax. Essentially, the restoration process had revealed sketches which had previously gone unnoticed. The technical details of this process are complex so I won't even try to describe them. If you're interested, check out San Francisco-based Cycle Publishing. It has the most popular article arguing that the bike is a hoax.

The ultimate authenticity of Leonardo's bike doesn't actually interest me; although the evidence favoring a hoax is very convincing to me. What actually fascinates me is the often ferocious debate over which country is the birthplace of the bike. Before Marinoni came along 19th and early 20th Century French, Spanish, and German scholars made their own ambiguous claims. And today, Italian museums and scholars with their American supporters contiune to brutally codemn Marinoni's critics.

What this tells me is that the bike is an apt metaphor for a world that is both globalzing and localizing. On the one hand, over 60% of the world's population uses bikes in their daily lives and work. Not surprisngly, the vast majority of bikers are in the developing world. On the other hand, every country has made the bike its own; some going as far as to claim it as their unique invention.

Perhaps anticipating this debate in 1949, the Italian writer (and yet another fascist bike freak), Curzio Malaparte, wrote in the Paris Sport Digest:
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 bicycle—like the horse, the dog, the eagle, the flowers, the trees, the clouds—has 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 peninsula’s spine, from the Alps to the Eatna.
This reminds me of those times I have talking with Chicago bikers when I got the distinct feeling that they think they'd invented bikes, if not bike culture. Or take the freakbikers. They certainly have their own claims on the bike's origins as they continuously come up with a dizzying array of new frame contortions. As the heirs of Leonardo's wild experimentations, they should get credit for being the true (re)inventors of the bike.

In either case, whether or not Leonardo first imagined the modern bike, the bike has entered the popular imagination of the world. So much so that it has become a prevalent metaphor among writers, musicians, and artists...

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Blogger nicomachus said...

Nice entry. It is strange how contested the bicycle's origins are. There are some here in Durham who claim that a Southerner invented the double-triangle design for the modern bicycle, while most credit JK Starley with that invention.

Incidentally, the photo of the bicycle in the wood-carving is from the Nasher Museum at Duke University. It was done by 20th century Nigerian artist Arowogun d'Osi-Ilorin, and it's part of a huge door. Taking the photograph, I focused just on the bicycle to bring out what I thought was the most interesting part of the carving.

29/8/06 09:02  
Blogger Da' Square Wheelman, said...

Thanks for your comments and especially for the picture if the Nigerian bicycle carving. I was remiss in not asking your permission first as well as not giving you full credit in the post.

Another issue I'll come to soon is the Berlinian balancing act between fascination with and fetishization of bikes. The Da Vinci bike debate, in my opinion, definitely tips towards the latter.


29/8/06 14:04  

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