Ad astra

Very deep is the well of the past, it is no small effort to pick out all the garbage that has been thrown into it. Our recent post on medieval and Renaissance bicycles has been honored first of all by the original Russian “translator”, Boris Indrikov, who also provided us with the reproduction of Van Gogh’s posthumous painting Self-portrait with bicycle, without the artist’s left ear and all the rest.

Then our estimated Greek friend Poly Hatjimanolaki congratulated through us to Boris, at the same time reminding us of Paco Ignacio Taibo II.’s absurd thriller, The bicycle of Leonardo. The idea that the great Renaissance master was also the inventor of the bike among so many other things, has stirred the fantasy of others as well and inspired a novel by Guy Davenport.

And it is no mere accident. Do you see the conspicuous similarity of the vehicles on the covers? All of them are based on the drawing discovered by Augusto Marinoni in the Codex Atlanticus of Milan which has preserved the sketches of Leonardo. He published his discovery in 1974 in a paper delivered precisely in Vinci, the birthplace of Leonardo. Subsequently the bicycle of Leonardo run a brilliant career, it has been also modeled in life size for the Florentine exhibition in honor of the millennium traveling all over the world. Its only fault was the impossibility of being steered. Apparently this minor problem did not excite the master.

It was only in 1997 that Dr. Hans-Erhard Lessing pointed out in a detailed study that the design was a forgery, and a quite recent one at that, drawn into the codex (!) after its restoration in the 60s, more precisely between 1967 and 1974. No trace of it can be seen on the photos made before and during the restoration, only some circles and lines appear through from the other side of the page, and these were complemented into a bike by the forger. It is noteworthy, writes Lessing, that in all the literature on bicycle history none else has accepted the attribution except for Marinoni and his Italian followers.

No, this design of Leonardo is surely not authentic: it has been made for the Photoshop competition of Worth1000.

For the stake, writes Lessing, was not small. The Italians had to demonstrate that the first paleo-bicycle before the patent of the modern bike in 1817 was not the célérifère of 1791 of Comte de Sivrac as it has been asserted by the French for a century. Bicycle, in fact, must be an Italian invention. For Malaparte made it clear already in 1949:

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 Etna.

Reconstruction of the célérifère.

But in the reality all the noble efforts of the Italians were just shots in the air. For Comte de Sivrac never existed, and consequently neither the célérifère. Both were invented in 1891 by the journalist Louis Baudry de Saunier who in his national pride wanted to dispute the primacy of the German Baron Karl Drais, the actual inventor of the bicycle.

However, the series of surprising discoveries has not yet come to an end. The document sent to us in a comment by Syr Wullam cuts every petty cause among modern European nations already at the roots. Already ancient Greeks knew the bike! What is more, writes our blue-blooded expert,

the Greek did not need to strain themselves with pedals as the poor chaps in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. No, they just gave it the gun as the peasant to his Berva (© my granny).

We have also checked some other works of the artist Robert Weigand. Most of his drawings are in the style of the illustrations of Reader’s Digest which, interestingly, reintegrate the allegoric and emblematic pictorial language of the Early Modern period to 20th-century applied graphics – but this problem deserves a post of its own and will also receive it. However, what we have discovered with surprise – why should always other make the surprising discoveries? – was the fact that even the topics of Weigand’s other pictures are in line with the article by Indrikov. In several illustrations we find the bicycle, the Sun and the Moon, and even their modern knight balancing between them as if he did it on two wheels. Is it not possible that the master is a secret member of the Order of the Sun and the Moon which has survived until today?

However, the greatest and most breathtaking coming out was yet to come. The person exposed was no less than Wang Wei himself, co-author of our blog, founding father of Studiolum, whom after several years of bosom-friendship we have thought to know like our palm. Indeed, after reading the previous post he wrote to us:

Te mando un documento único. Que en realidad es una confesión secreta: yo pertenezco a la venerable «Order of the Sun and of the Moon». Una de las pruebas que tenemos que pasar es subir al Tourmalet intentando pasar completamente desapercibidos entre la masa de absurdos deportistas plebeyos que, ataviados con ropajes ridículos, exhiben su vanidad y se pavonean ante las damas. La hazaña no es pequeña, pues los aspirantes a caballeros de la Orden pueden ser requeridos por el Gran Maestre para pasar la prueba en cualquier momento del día o de la noche, en cualquier época del año, llueva o truene, con luna o bajo un sol de justicia. Cuando esa llamada ocurre, tenemos que dejar nuestra casa inmediatamente, coger la primera bicicleta que encontremos en la calle y, vestidos tal como estábamos en nuestros aposentos, lanzarnos a la carretera y subir la mítica montaña. Ello exige un permanente estado de vigilia física y espiritual que muchos no pueden soportar. Otros fracasan repetidas veces en sus intentos de escalada de las durísimas rampas y van repitiendo la prueba cada vez que son requeridos hasta que, convencidos de su inferioridad, deben abandonar sus pretensiones de entrar en la Orden. En fin, esta es una de las pruebas que mandó mi escudero al Gran Consejo de la Orden y que ahora te revelo en primicia.

Hereby I send you a unique document which is actually a secret confession: I belong to the venerable “Order of the Sun and of the Moon.” One of the tests we must pass is to climb the Tourmalet completely unnoticed among the mass of plebeian mock-athletes dressed in ridiculous clothes showing off their vanity to the ladies. The feat is not small, as the aspiring knights of the Order may be required by the Grand Master to pass the test at any time of the day or night all year round, in rain or frost, in moonlight or under the sun of justice. As soon as we hear this call, we must immediately leave our home, take the first bike that we find in the street and, dressed just as we were in our homes, take the road and climb the mystical mountain. This requires a constant state of physical and spiritual vigilance that many can not endure. Many fail repeatedly in their attempts to climb the hard ramps and try to repeat the test several times until, convinced of their inferiority, they abandon their claim to enter the Order. This is thus one of the tests that my squire recorded for the Grand Council of the Order with the following document which is now revealed to you as the first person outside the Order.

This unique document which can be dated to several years before, almost to the Middle Ages, attests not only for how long Wang Wei has been a knight of the Order of the Sun and of the Moon. But it also sheds light on something he has not unrevealed in one of his previous posts: the reason why his Mallorcan Catalan compatriots are so enthusiastic fighters for the freedom of Transylvania.

8 comentarios:

Πόλυ Χατζημανωλάκη dijo...

Dear Tamás,

What a brilliant post. I cannot find the proper words to express my admiration!
Thank you so much for mentioning my humble remark on Leonardo’s bicycle.

I agree with you that the series of the surprising discoveries has not yet come to an end. It is worth mentioning the predecessor of the bicycle, i.e the skate rollers
greek skate rollers

Syr Wullam would be happy to know that the first skate rollers can be traced in Homer’s Iliad:

Hephaistos, the craftsman god, is making tripods with golden wheels attached to their feet. Thetis, finds him in his house making twenty tripods.

(Il. 18. 372-377)

"And (Thetis) she found him sweating, whirling around the bellows,
Hard at work. For he was making twenty tripods, all
To stand around the broad megaron, against the wall.
And he placed gold wheels beneath each base,
For them to enter the divine assembly on their own,
And return back home, a wonder to behold…"

Studiolum dijo...

Dear Poly,

sorry for the belated reaction, as I've been in library all the day. Secretly I also hoped that in the meantime Syr Wullam – who is a classical philologist – would discover your comment and react in a much more professional way than I ever could. Now I see that he apparently has not been around today, but I'm sure he will and he will deeply appreciate your trouvaille.

Just like I do. This is a fantastic finding indeed. Of course I knew the locus, but I did not recall it while ruminating about paleo-bicycles and their kinship. It is probably the first occurrence of tricycle or paleo-skateroller in ancient literature (just as the thereafter following 417-420 is the first mention of mechanic robots). I will check Renaissance commentaries on this place, being quite curious how they imagined this wonder vehicle.

Do you know that this tradition of the gods of having self-moving skate rollers for the purposes of the heavenly assembly is quite alive in today's Bohemia, where even deputies use skate rollers in the parliament? When Václav Havel was elected first President of Bohemia after the change of regime in 1989, one of the first presents he officially received from the Bohemian people was a professional skate roller to use on the infinitely long corridors of the Hradzin. And I've seen a couple of photos where he in fact did so!

Thank you also for your appreciative words, but the merit is entirely yours – for having incited me with your comment to check the historical reality behind Leonardo's invention. And historical reality is always much more intriguing than one would think beforehand.

Thanks so much and best wishes

Lord of Erewhon dijo...

Forgery is part of History... and belongs to the pursuit of truth, in a strange way. For centuries kings and queens have been portrayed in lack of their ugly sides. And mythology is a forgery of facts, which gives them a tremendous cultural efficiency.


Syr Wullam dijo...

Dear Poly,

thank you for calling my attention to the Iliad passage, which for some reason I totally forgot about when writing my hasty comment to Tamás' amusing and entertaining post.

The Iliad locus immediately reminded me of Aristotle's Politics, which I happen to have beside my laptop these days (I am translating a book that makes frequent references to it). Last week, while hunting down a particular word, I stumbled on a passage in Politics 1.4 (1253b), which quotes the same locus from Homer. The Hephaistean tripods pop up in Aristotle's discussion of self-moving instruments.

Now, paleocyclologists know very well that it cannot be by chance that Aristotle lists the tripods together with instrumenta capable of moving, as it were, sponte sua. This is an early reference to (auto-)motocycles.

Therefore, medieval and early modern depictions of bicycles should be taken as evidence for the decline of technical knowledge in the history of western civilization. From now on motocycles should be included, with Heron's steam engine and Roman windmills, in the long list of forgotten marvels that classical antiquity produced.


SW ;-)

Syr Wullam dijo...

One more thing:

Hephaistos in his automobile (painted inside a bowl found in an Etruscan tomb in Saturnia, central Italy, now in Museo Archeologico Etrusco, Florence, Italy, inv. no. 81600. Last part of sixth century BC. Drawing by K. Berggren after E. Simon, Die Götter der Griechen, Hirmer Verlag, Munich, 1969, fig. 209).

Πόλυ Χατζημανωλάκη dijo...

Dear Tamás,

Thank you for your kind reply. I did not know about President Havel’s skate rollers, but I cannot think of a better symbol for Democracy: i.e the freedom to move on your own in any direction.

Socrates in Plato’s Meno (97) makes a comment on the behaviour of these statues – made by Daidalos – that were able to move so lively that they required bonds!!!
Meno is not paying so much attention in the conversation because «he has turned his mind to the statues of Daidalos»

MENO: Why do you say that?
SOCRATES: Because, u n l e ss b o u n d, they run away and escape, but if they are fastened down, they remain in place.

The magic of arts and crafts was re- introduced in political life with an elected president on skate rollers, not bound, and free to think and to move in any direction.

Πόλυ Χατζημανωλάκη dijo...

Dear Syr Wullam,

Thank you for your answer and for the picture of Hephaistos on his winged automobile.
I agree with you on the decline of modern technology which reminds me again of Hermes’s winged sandals, i.e. the aviating skate rollers, mentioned often in Odyssey as in Book 5:

Odyssey Book 5 (44-49)

The Argus – slaying guide (Hermes)…
Directly, then, tied handsome sandals, godly and golden, to his feet.
They carried him on gusts of wind over water and land without end.
He wiggled his wand to charm human eyes to sleep
Or wake the sleepy – eyed, as he wished.

In Ancient Ephesus, on the corner of Domitian square, Hermes
stands with his heralds staff and winged sandals.

Margaret Foxmoore dijo...

Brilliant posts....