The Premonitions of Leonardo da Vinci

In the mind of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), one of the greatest intellects of a great age, a multitude of practical inventions accompanied his ideal projections. He and other contemporary artist-engineers demonstrated, as early as the sixteenth century, how many of the technical achievements of our own time had already been sampled in fantasy and even tested in actual or pictured models.

By now everyone is familiar with Leonardo’s many audacious but remarkably practical constructions, and his equally practical anticipations: likewise with his unsuccessful Great Bird. The latter was actually a glider, with wings which could not move, a failure for reasons that his near contemporary, Borelli, was soon to explain by his remarkable researches on the locomotion of animals, and in particular on the anatomy of birds. For even if Leonardo’s wings had been feather-light, they would have required enormous pectoral muscles on the scale of a bird’s breast to flap them.

Yet in doing justice to Leonardo, the inventor and engineer, scholars have tended to overlook how disturbed he was by his own mechanical fantasies. Like Roger Bacon, he too had foreseen in his usual enigmatic way (labeled a dream) that “men shall walk without moving [motor car], they shall speak with those absent [telephone], they shall hear those who do not speak [phonograph].” But in another fantasy written in the form of a letter, Leonardo conjures up the image of a hideous monster that would attack and destroy mankind. Though Leonardo gave the monster a tangible, gigantic, subhuman form, his actual performances come all too close to the hideous scientifically engineered exterminations our own age has witnessed. The monster’s imperviousness to attack only completes resemblance to the airborne atomic, bacterial, and chemical weapons that now have it in their power to wipe out all of mankind. Leonardo’s description, printed in MacCurdy’s translation of the Notebooks under “Tales,” demands direct quotation.

Alas, how many attacks were made upon this raging fiend; to him every onslaught was as nothing. O wretched folk, for you there availed not the impregnable fortress, nor the lofty walls of your cities, nor being together in great numbers, nor your houses or palaces! There remained not any place unless it were the tiny holes and subterranean caves where after the manner of crabs and crickets and creatures like these you might find safety and a means of escape. Oh, how many wretched mothers and fathers were deprived of their children! How many unhappy women were deprived of their companions. In truth, my dear Benedetto, I do not believe that ever since the world was created there has been witnessed such lamentation and wailing of people accompanied by so great terror. In truth the human species in such a plight has need to envy every other race of creatures…for us wretched mortals there avails not any flight, since this monster when advancing slowly far exceeds the speed of the swiftest courser.

I know not what to say or do, for everywhere I seem…

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