Ossessione, by Da Vinci

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I was trying to find out a little more about Sir Frank Whittle who I thought was the co-founder of the Cubist movement but have since discovered was the creator of the turbojet engine, when I came across an article on the internet which caught my eye...

I was trying to find out a little more about Sir Frank Whittle who I thought was the co-founder of the Cubist movement but have since discovered was the creator of the turbojet engine, when I came across an article on the internet which caught my eye like a fish hook. ‘The paper aeroplane,’ it read, ‘was invented by none other than Leonardo da Vinci.’ Stunned by the news, my mind whirled as I began to imagine the immense hopes, dreams and obstacles which must have gone into the invention of something which is now too often taken for granted.

Picturing the great man at work, I stoked up a brief biography and though my grasp of the innovations of the Italian Renaissance is shaky I hope I have captured here at least a sense of the incomparable genius which brought about the most popular invention of all time.

1452: Leonardo is born illegitimately to wealthy notary Messer Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci and a peasant girl called Caterina ‘at the third hour of the night,’ when famously it was hell trying to get a home visit. Luckily the birth is a doozy. Then, somewhere between the third and fourth hour his father leaves, blaming his sudden departure on the culmination of a long-standing downward spiral in anchovy. Following a return to healthier shoals in 1457, Messer Piero brings his son to live with him in the town of Vinci.

1457: Receives an informal education in geometry, maths and modern dance. A squat child, he is a painfully slow learner and although he can paint well-balanced landscapes and count from one to ten by his fifth birthday he still substitutes the word ‘lettuce’ for the number eight. As the years pass, Leonardo’s life is immeasurably enriched by the love of family and almonds in syrup.

1464: Tragedy strikes as he watches his father, who is again beset by a bottoming out in fish, commit suicide by jumping from the tower of the local monastery. He fails – soaring instead of plunging – yet too proud to admit defeat attends the monastery every night for a week and repeats the feat. Soon he develops a mild brain concussion and is taken into care at the monastery where he is heard to say, ‘does it have to be so hard? It’s as though I had wings!’ It is this episode, some believe, which inspired the young Leonardo by now a talented artist to take his first tentative steps into aircraft design.

1466: Leonardo enters the apprenticeship of painter Verrocchio to pursue studies of dark and light but shows little enthusiasm for either. Constantly preoccupied with the notion of flight he would infuriate his master by spending most of his time catching birds and putting them in cages to then ‘watch their little faces as I release them’. In constant revolt against everything artistic, he attempts to stuff Verrocchio into a cage and is expelled on a spurious charge of sodomy. Ironically, Leonardo’s last vindictive brushstrokes to Verrocchio’s The Baptism of Christ are thought so perfect that Verrocchio puts down his brushes and joins the navy.

1478: Landing work with the Medicis in Florence he enjoys a degree of financial success making musical instruments shaped liked animals. Here, he also spends four years in intensive research on paperfolding. Much to his irritation, it isn’t long until he is provided with two artistic commissions: to paint an altarpiece for the Chapel of St. Bernard in the Palazzo Vecchio and ‘The Adoration of the Magi’. But in the end both of these remain unfinished after Leonardo receives word from Milan that a new type of lighter paper has gone on sale. Though in awe of the many varieties he now encounters, his notebook entry of 2nd April hints only at frustration: ‘the paper, whether fine or coarse, falls. It does not fly like papà. Simplify, simplify.’

1482: Leonardo works in Milan from 1482 until 1499 but with ever-diminishing style and, as the commissions slip by, an increasing reputation for procrastination.

1490: Destitute, Leonardo swallows his pride and produces Vitruvian Man for a poster campaign. Unluckily, after a night in with friends he is arrested and again accused of sodomy this time having been mistaken for local male prostitute Leonardo Da Vinchi. Notwithstanding his innocence he is outcast and lives the next two years in self-imposed solitary confinement. He works day and night, making tentative folds in hundreds of pieces of paper, launching them from a patented steam-powered catapult and making notes on his findings. It is clear from these feverish entries that his search for the secret of flight has now become an obsession.

1499: At the outbreak of the Second Italian War Leonardo is summoned to Cesena to work for Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, as his military architect. Borgia had been made aware of Leonardo’s work on a flying machine and commissions him to fix ‘something sweet’ for the approaching French armies. Everyone has high hopes of a revolutionary defense strategy or at the very least a defense strategy. Finally, on the 10th November with Charles III stopping by with a thousand men Leonardo unveils his prototype plane, twelve inches long and fashioned from folded paper. It flies like a dream and although no-one sees any immediate benefit and the town is ransacked Leonardo is convinced in the ensuing months that he is on the threshold of human flight.

1504: Journeys to Florence, after word of a fresh batch of hardened paper. ‘This time’ he hoped, ‘with the propensity to bear weight’. While there, the Signoria commissions Leonardo to paint The Battle of Anghiari and though he had only packed a carry-on he is obliged to take up the work. He finally meets Michelangelo whom according to a notebook entry in 1505 he never liked because ‘he always comes off better in pictures and never has to wear a hat.’ He detests Michelangelo even more after their meeting describing him as ‘the slimy little guy who salivates,’ and eagerly volunteers to join a secret committee formed to relocate the statue of David one mile off the coast of Livorno.

1508: After nine years of frenzied labour, Leonardo is convinced he is on the threshold of a successful manned flight. He travels to the Vatican and exhibits before Pope Julius II his new and improved paper aeroplane which is now twelve feet long and large enough for a pilot to lie down in. The pope senses the imminence of something great and encourages him, providing on-site accommodation and a generous three year bursary.

1509: Though aging physically he follows one success with another. He launches his aeroplane every week from the newly built St Peter’s Basilica noting its trajectory, adjusting the folds then returning to the top of the dome with renewed vigour. Appreciative crowds cheer as they watch the now famous ‘aquila carta’ glide effortlessly over the rooftops of the ancient city. He becomes a local hero and to celebrate his forty-seventh birthday he is lavished with as many beret hats and all the vegetable cutlets he can eat. ‘The next step,’ he writes in September of 1510, ‘is finding some fool to ride it’. His first choice is Michelangelo but in the end it is put out to a public ballot.

1511: Briefly revisiting his studio in Milan he is horrified to learn of the flight trials of a new machine from the Strasbourg studio of Johannes Gutenberg who, it is said, on his return from Italy not only fashioned his aeroplane from wood but also achieved fully controlled, manned flight. What’s more, the plane is powered by the pilot and capable of carrying a not-insignificant number of cannonballs. Leonardo is enraged, proved by an entry in his notebook on 4th March which reads simply: ‘Bollocks.’ He shreds all of his blueprints and tears his models and prototypes to pieces with his bare hands. Over the next eight years, returning to work as an artist, he slips into a deep depression and lives for evermore in complete silence, unable to trust anyone.

1519: Makes his final brush strokes to the Mona Lisa. Its unveiling brings great acclaim and Leonardo begins to think that he is ‘onto something with the painting and the sculpting’. He regrets never having completed a single work in his lifetime but it is all too late. On 2nd May 1519, with King Francis I of France holding the great man’s head in his arms, Leonardo Da Vinci dies.

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