A family of Florentine craftsmen has discovered previously unknown theorems hidden in Leonardo’s mechanical designs, shed- ding light on the full scope of his genius.
Carlo Niccolai and his son Gabriele have spent decades constructing and working the models of Leonardo’s inventions through close study of his famous codices. In collaboration with a team of specialists, the Niccolai family re-creates the designs using materials such as wood, rope, fabric and metal that date back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
In his studies for a European Com- mission-sponsored exhibition of the machines in Brussels earlier this year, Gabriele Niccolai noted how Leonardo appears to have deliberately scattered the mechanical components required to create his inventions over several di er- ent pages of his codices, allowing artisans to create individual elements but preventing their understanding of the machine as a whole. This may be due in part to the fact that Leonardo’s codices have been split up and reassembled over the years. Sculptor Pompeo Leoni took the liberty of cutting and dividing several of the codices into scientific and artistic categories in the seventeenth century; however, such a practice would have also safeguarded his inventions during times of war. Leonardo’s catapult design in the Atlantic Codex is rendered useless without details of its ballistic adjustments, which are found in a different part of the codex as a series of self-locking mechanisms.
A deeper understanding of Leonardo’s codices has revealed that many of his technological innovations rested upon those of his engineering predecessors, such as Brunelleschi, Vitruvius, Heron of Alexandria and Archimedes of Syracuse, which Leonardo adapt- ed to his own context. His modi- cation of a mechanism based on a description found in Herodotus and believed to have been used for building the pyramids surpassed all expectations when Niccolai
created its working model in 2011: a 300kg concrete block was so reduced in weight that a six-year-old child was able to lift it.
The models have been displayed at more than 100 international exhibitions throughout Europe and as far a eld as Australia, New Zealand, China, the US, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Finland. More than 50 working models are on permanent display at The Machines of Leonardo da Vinci exhibit at Galleria Michelangiolo in Via Cavour. Here visitors have the chance to not only observe but also interact with var- ious prototypes, such as the aerial screw used in today’s helicopters, alongside a scuba-diving apparatus, glider, bicycle, tank and missiles; and view reconstructions of Leonardo’s studies of anatomy. The exhibit also displays copies of six codices, in which the visitor can view the sketches that reveal the workings of the great man’s mind.
The Niccolai family has been widely praised for its ongoing devotion to realising the vast inheritance that Leonardo left to science. Professor Carlo Pedretti, director of the Armand Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies at the University of California, says, “Carlo Niccolai is an admirable figure, a talented craftsman who has developed his own way in studying the techno- logical level reached by Leonardo da Vinci. Moreover, he is a person gifted with great simplicity and humility. His work is important to scholars because it helps our theories and contributes to study in- depth Leonardo’s machines and all the technological discoveries made at that time.”