Thank you Dan Brown: Leonardo da Vinci, magic, chess, the Battle of Anghiari and lost things

Yesterday while I was waiting in Brisbane’s flash new ABC studios for Conversations with Richard Fidler (a Renaissance man and maths nerd with the voice of Paul Robeson), a headline drifted across a television screen: Florence art sleuths find lost Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece. WHAT?! The famous lost mural of the Battle of Anghiari painted in 1503 on the wall of Florence’s enormous Council Hall? Which Leonardo painted in competition with a young upstart who was painting his own mural on the wall opposite, Michelangelo?

This was just one more of the many serendipitous moments thrown up during my travels with Double Entry. Because I was in Brisbane to talk about that book, which is partly the story of Leonardo da Vinci’s friend Luca Pacioli. This controversial Catholic monk and mathematician is now known as the ‘father of accounting’, but in 1503 Pacioli was a celebrated Italian mathematician and master of the mathematics of the new perspective painting.

Hence his friendship with Leonardo, one of the three great artist-mathematicians of the Renaissance. (The other two being Piero della Francesca and Albrecht Durer, both also connected to Luca Pacioli.)

And hence my thanks to Dan Brown. His Da Vinci Code was published in 2003. Immediately Leonardo da Vinci, arcane Renaissance mysteries, monks and Catholic Church conspiracies were swept into the limelight. This new interest in Leonardo et al also unearthed for the first time since his death around 1517 the elusive and little known monk, Fra Luca Pacioli, whose life and work I happened to be researching.

While I worked on Double Entry two lost manuscripts by Luca Pacioli saw light of day for the first time in 5o0 years. The first, De viribus quantitatis (‘On the Powers of Numbers’), had not actually been lost – but it had languished unnoticed in the bowels of the Bologna University Library for five centuries. De viribus is a foundational European text of magic and number puzzles completed in 1508.

In 2007 it became front page news. To mark the 500th anniversary of its completion the magician William Kalush, founder of the Conjuring Arts Research Center in New York, announced that he’d initiated its first-ever publication – and its first translation into English – which would appear in 2008. The publication of a neglected work by an unknown Renaissance mathematician would once have gone mostly unremarked, except that this was the post-Da Vinci Code era and anything remotely related to Leonardo da Vinci was newsworthy.

‘Forgotten magic manual contains the original da Vinci code’ announced the Guardian in 2007, hailing De viribus as ‘the world’s oldest magic text’. Luca Pacioli was called ‘Leonardo’s best friend and teacher’. The mathematician David Singmaster proclaimed De viribus to be ‘the foundation not only of modern magic but of numerical puzzles too’ and marvelled that it was not more widely known: ‘We don’t know why, but this huge thing has been hidden away in the University of Bologna we presume since the time of Pacioli.’

But that was not all. More amazing and more exciting was the discovery in 2006 of an actual lost manuscript by Luca Pacioli. It attracted widespread attention because …? In a post-Dan Brown age, because of its possible connection to Leonardo da Vinci.

The manuscript was De ludo scacchorum. The monk claimed to have written a book on the new chess which took Europe by storm from around 1475. It was characterised by dramatically enhanced powers of the queen and bishop, and extended powers of the pawn. Because it made the queen the most powerful piece on the board, it was called ‘mad queen’s chess’ – ‘scacchi alla rabiosa’.

But no book by Pacioli on mad queen’s chess had ever been found – and scholars began to doubt he’d ever written such a thing. Until in 2006, when it was found in northern Italy among 22,000 volumes in the library of Count Guglielmo Coronini. It was indeed about the new chess – and turns out to be a key document in the history of chess, containing over 100 problems which show the game as it developed from its medieval to its modern form.

‘It was like a Holy Grail of chess. We knew it existed but nobody had ever seen it,’ said Serenella Ferrari Benedetti of the Coronini estate.

But what really excited interest was the possibility of Luca Pacioli’s collaboration with Leonardo da Vinci on De ludo scacchorum. In 2008 the chess correspondent of the Times, Raymond Keene, wrote that its rediscovery ‘is of much more than scholarly or antiquarian interest, for it has been suggested that its chess puzzle diagrams were not only designed by Leonardo da Vinci, but also drawn by him and, the most tantalising prospect of all, perhaps even composed by him.’

Keene found that one of the puzzles prompts ‘a fiendishly difficult forced checkmate’, its complexity and sophistication remarkable considering the new rules had only been introduced a few years before the book was written. Given the novelty of the game and the sophistication of the puzzle, whoever composed the puzzle was in Keene’s view ‘a chess genius’. The solution is not only highly advanced for the time, but ‘also succeeds brilliantly in its didactic purpose of showcasing the sweeping new powers of queen and bishop as well as the potentially devastating weapon of a humble pawn now being able to promote to a mighty queen.’

Given Pacioli’s close friendship with Leonardo, their cohabitation and known collaboration on De divina proportione during the years the chess book was probably written (around 1500), it’s possible that Leonardo was indeed involved in this project.

But how does Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari relate to Luca Pacioli? Because as well as being a decisive event in the fortunes of Florence – hence its choice by the Florentine Signoria as the subject of Leonardo’s mural – the Battle of Anghiari opened the small town of Pacioli’s birth, Sansepolcro, to the influence of Florence.

In 1430 Sansepolcro was sold by the illegitimate sons of its Malatesta rulers to the Pope in exchange for a papal letter which legitimised their births. For the next ten years the town was fought over by the Florentines in alliance with the Pope against their common enemy, Milan. The conflict ended in 1440 with the Battle of Anghiari, a town near Sansepolcro, when the allied forces of Florence and the Church defeated the Milanese. Despite their victory, the Pope was forced to sell Sansepolcro to Florence for 25,000 ducats because he ‘lacked money’ (as Machiavelli reports) for his various military exploits.

And so Sansepolcro came under the rule of Florence. This brought new wealth – financial, cultural and artistic – to the town, including Florence’s avant-garde art (linear perspective painting) and its humanism. Luca Pacioli was born five years later. The Sansepolcro he grew up in had been transformed from an isolated market town to a bustling centre, the influence of Florence evident in the number of new palazzos built and artworks commissioned, many of them from Piero della Francesca, Sansepolcro’s most celebrated son.

Hence my excitement when I saw that Leonardo’s ‘lost masterpiece’ – the mural of the Battle of Anghiari – had possibly been found, just as I was about to talk about Luca Pacioli. And my smile when I read headlines like this ‘Art sleuths find “new Da Vinci”‘ and reports like this:

‘The research is the result of a decades-long quest using cutting-edge technology by University of California San Diego professor Maurizio Seracini, who was featured in Dan Brown’s bestselling novel “The Da Vinci Code”.’

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One Response to Thank you Dan Brown: Leonardo da Vinci, magic, chess, the Battle of Anghiari and lost things

  1. Pingback: Bookending 2012: From women’s writing to … Australia’s forgotten women writers | bookish girl

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