Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Leonardo Da Vinci

(1452-1519) Florentine painter, sculptor, inventor and military engineer, celebrated since the Enlightenment as the epitome of Renaissance creative genius. Leonardo not infrequently appeared among 19th-century novels concerned with Cesare Borgia or Lorenzo Visconti – Leonora d'Orco, or The Times of Caesar Borgia (1857) by George James (1801-1860) is typical – but the first novel to present Leonardo as protagonist may be Dmitri Merezhkovsky's Voskresennie Bogi: Leonardo da-Vinchi (1901; trans as The Forerunner: The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci 1902 UK; complete trans Bernard Guilbert Guerney as The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci (The Gods Resurgent) 1928 US; rev 1964). Although Merezhkovsky's Leonardo inhabits a world of supernatural events, the evocation of the man is essentially rationalist, and what might be called the Vinciad – a subgenre today comprising the majority of all stories written about Leonardo – has always emphasized Leonardo's ability to create marvels through mechanical means.

Manly Wade Wellman's Twice in Time (1940 Startling Stories; cut 1957; rev with text restored and 1 story added coll 1988) offers a perspective on Leonardo's Florence via Time Travel, by which – in a plot-twist used again with regard to Leonardo in Robert A Heinlein's The Door into Summer (1957) – the modern protagonist eventually becomes Leonardo. A variant is the story in which Leonardo is brought forward into the present – "Mister da V" (1962) by Kit Reed (1932-    ) is an example – but most stories dealing with Leonardo eschew Time Travel, leaving him in Renaissance Italy where – and this is the defining element of the Vinciad – he actually does build one or more of his fantastical designs.

Gerald Kersh's "The Dancing Doll" (1955) exemplifies the specific appeal of the Vinciad: his Leonardo realizes how to build breathing tubes that will allow soldiers to cross a shallow river while remarking on the probosces of mosquitoes in pestilential swamps (and incidentally almost discovering the role of insects in disease transmission), and explains this to his patron duke while designing a toy doll for the duke's ailing son (whom he also cures).

Vinciads have been popular in mainstream fiction as well as in the sf and fantasy genres, although with the difference that Leonardo's inventions in these cases usually do not surpass 20th-century technology. The Medici Guns by Martin Woodhouse and Robert Ross (1974) – sequelled by The Medici Emeralds (1976) and The Medici Hawks (1978 US) – is a typical example, with Leonardo being called upon by Lorenzo de Medici to create weaponry to defend Florence against the invading papal armies. Vinciads have also proven popular outside print fiction, usually with a more fantastic cast. Vertigo/DC Comics published a Graphic Novel, Chiaroscuro: The Private Lives of Leonardo da Vinci (May 1995-April 1996 in 10 instalments) created by Charles Truog, David Rawson and Pat McGreal; an earlier Batman graphic novel proposed that Leonardo might have donned a Bat costume in order to wreak Vengeance in Florence. The movie Hudson Hawk (1991) dir Michael Lehmann dramatizes a modern-day Quest to recover an invention by Leonardo (who in fact detested Alchemy) to transmute lead into gold. Leonardo has appeared, in variously rationalized sf forms, in episodes of Star Trek ("Requiem for Methuselah" by Jerome Bixby) and Doctor Who ("City of Death" by Douglas Adams).

Treatment of the theme by more literary writers has tended toward the elliptical and figurative, and appears almost exclusively in the work of fabulists. Jeanette Winterson's Art and Lies (1994) briefly evokes Leonardo (in the consciousness of a disturbed painter). Leonardo does not in fact appear in Guy Davenport's Da Vinci's Bicycle (coll 1979).

In the past decade the Vinciad has become popular in genre sf and fantasy, in part perhaps because the clockwork Universe of Renaissance cosmology (Leonardo's drawings included designs for hydraulic screws and gearworks) has affinities with the spirit of Steampunk. Pasquale's Angel (1994) by Paul J McAuley (1955-    ) sees an Alternate World in which Leonardo's genius creates an early industrial dystopia in Renaissance Italy. Jack Dann's The Memory Cathedral (1995) is a convergent alternate history that dramatizes Leonardo's invention of the flying machine and other marvels during an undocumented period of his life. The Vincian fantasy seems to have become a potent trope. [GF]

further reading: The Deluge (1954) by Robert Payne, a disaster novel credited to Leonardo "edited by" Payne, is based on fragmentary material by Leonardo; The Second Mrs Giaconda (1975) by E L Konigsburg, for young readers, is a historical novel that emphasizes the synthesizing nature of Leonardo's genius.


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.