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LEONARDO’S BRIDGE: Part 1. “The Master of all Trades”

Leonardo (1452-1519) created no more than 17 paintings during his lifetime. This part-time artist, who created the two most famous paintings in the history of art, was a consummate scientist-engineer, imbuing his art with science, and his science with art.

Portrait of Leonardo by his pupil Francesco Melzi (c. 1510).

Although he had virtually no formal education, he possessed relentless curiosity, which in combination with his extraordinary skills of observation, defined his unique modus operandi. His Codices, notebooks reminiscent of modern lab books, exude an almost divine quality. First, the drawings are far more beautiful than any ordinary scientist could have created; second, they show the depth and breadth of his understanding; and third, they reveal that he was routinely making discoveries centuries before they would be rediscovered. Five hundred years ago he designed machines to enable a man to walk on water, or to walk around breathing under water; siege engines to wage war, and machines to defend against attackers; portable bridges; machines for human flight; topographic maps; devices to measure humidity and wind speed… and machines that could grind mirrors to focus rays of light. Most likely he made a refracting astronomical telescope 100 years before Galileo, and a reflecting telescope 170 years before Isaac Newton reinvented it. (Among the blogs in National Geographic NewsWatch, please see the 4th in the series, ‘Brief History of the Astronomical Telescope: <a href=” https://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2011/07/05/a-brief-history-of-the-astronomical-telescope-iv-did-leonardo-invent-the-astronomical-telescope-100-years-before-galileo/“> A Brief History of the Astronomical Telescope </a>).

The design of a robotic cart. Notice the negative slope Leonardo has employed in the shading.

The drawing for a machine that had long been thought to be the blueprint of a ‘spring-driven cart’ was recently identified as a design in robotics. Among all the areas of science and technology in which he delved, it was in anatomical studies that he excelled. He produced drawings that have never been equaled in quality.

History’s Most Famous Left-Hander

Leonardo, in writing his thoughts in his notebooks, employed “mirror script,” writing backwards from right-to-left. To read his notes, one has to reflect them in a mirror, or hold up the reverse side against a strong light source. A simple rule of thumb that all sketch artists know instinctively is the direction of shading: a right-hander shades by creating parallel lines with positive slope (bottom left to top right); a left-hander creates parallel lines with negative slope (bottom right to top left, notice the direction of shading in the robotic car). Leonardo was left-handed, and he simply did not want to smudge the freshly laid down ink with the heel of his hand, nor to stab the paper in pushing his quill from left-to-right. He found it much faster to write backwards.

The English translation of a statement by Leonardo (using the Da Vinci Font), as he would have written it from right-to-left. It reads, “Nature, being inconstant and taking pleasure in creating…” [Note to the reader: Continue reading the statement, if you can. In somewhat ambiguous terminology, Leonardo appears to be prefiguring Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.””
Leonardo’s Curriculum Vita. In a 1482 letter intended for Ludovico Sforza, Leonardo opens with, “Most Illustrious Lord, Having now sufficiently considered the specimens of all those who proclaim themselves skilled contrivers of instruments of war, and that the invention and operation of the said instruments are nothing different from those in common use: I shall endeavor, without prejudice to any one else, to explain myself to your Excellency, showing your Lordship my secret… He concludes with “I also paint.”

He could, however, write in the conventional manner, from left-to-right. In applying for a job as a military engineer in 1482, he wrote to Ludovico Sforza, the strongman of Milan in the normal direction. The 900-word letter, his CV, identifies eleven types of inventions he has produced, or that he can produce (he changes tense). He describes portable bridges, armed carts designed to deflect light artillery (the tank)… and concludes with “…also I can do in painting whatever needs to be done.” Leonardo claims he can also paint!

In 1499 the French invaded Milan, and took Leonardo’s patron Duke Sforza prisoner. Leonardo, out of a job, took his assistant Salai and mathematician friend Luca Paccioli, and abandoned Milan. Heading east, the small party made its way to Venice. It was there in 1500, it is believed, Leonardo first came into contact with the merchants, trading partners of the Ottoman Turks, and where he first began to ruminate about a job in the Ottoman Court. This time he wrote a letter from right-to-left, in the convention of ‘0ld Turkish’ script (Whether he personally wrote it or hired a Turkish scribe to write it, we shall never know. There is no right- or left-handed shading in the letter, as there is in the drawings.)

Next: Part II. The letter to the Sultan

A little known project even among Leonardisti (scholars and fans of Leonardo) concerns Leonardo’s attempt to secure employment as a military engineer at the Ottoman Court. In the next installment in this series, we discuss a 510-year old letter (discovered only 60 years ago) proposing the construction of a bridge over Istanbul’s Golden Horn.



  1. italo nascimento
    October 8, 2:13 pm

    I just noticed that the word ‘augmented’ is written wrong (as augmneted). It was hard to find out what it was. Nice text

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    May 4, 2013, 10:04 am

    I discovered this info earlier these days whilst within the workplace. Very helpful. Sent the link to myself and will probably bookmark it once I make it home.

  3. Lina D. Nelson
    February 10, 2013, 11:33 am

    Dear Bulent,
    I always enjoy reading your blogs. I find them fascinating and extremely informative. I look forward to reading more about Leonardo.

  4. Didi Massoud
    February 9, 2013, 1:37 pm

    My dear friend, it is a brilliant study of this illustrious man
    Very unteresting details
    I enjoyed your work
    Warm regards

    • Bulent Atalay
      February 9, 2013, 2:54 pm

      Hello Didi, thank you for the note from the Loire Valley, France, where Leonardo spent the last three years of his life.

    Melbourne, Australia
    February 8, 2013, 8:34 pm

    Dear Mr. Atalay,
    What a remarkable accomplishment for your hard work
    and diligence . You enriched my knowledge,Thank you
    very much .

    • Bulent Atalay
      February 8, 2013, 11:31 pm

      Thank you for the gracious note, Mrs. Donenfeld, for the note from Down Under. Leonardo would have been fascinated that technology has brought us to the point where we can communicate virtually instantaneously, and discuss his ideas from five hundred years ago.

  6. John Maenhout
    Maldegem Belgium
    February 8, 2013, 1:25 pm

    Dear Bulent,
    After reading this particular reference work I have learned a lot. You’re a crack in this matter, many of the inventions you have cited are inventions I had never known before. That he created only 17 paintings has led to much debate, but you assert this, so this case can be considered solved. That he has designed weapons was entirely unknown to me. He was a man that really could handle different issues, his style has left me awe struck. Left handed guitarists are the best in their fields, perhaps Leonardo similarly was best in writing with his left hand, and better than others.

    • Bulent Atalay
      February 8, 2013, 1:40 pm

      Thank you for the comment, John. There will still be debate about how many paintings he personally finished. Only half-a-dozen are without doubt entirely by his hand. Other paintings he probably started, and let his assistants finish. I did not know about left-handed guitarists being the most skillful, but I am not surprised. Among left-handers in history are Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Isaac Newton, Beethoven, and I believe four of the last five Presidents of the United States. They seem to think “outside the box.” I am personally jealous of left-handed Italians.

  7. Sergheii
    February 7, 2013, 12:59 pm

    Leonardo is a legendary man, but how long it take researchers to discover all his secrets and discoveries? I was in Milan,in the Museum of Leonardo and I was amazed how one person can affect the lives of science through the centuries. Thank you Bulent for your interesting works.

    • Bulent Atalay
      February 7, 2013, 9:40 pm

      Thank you, Serghei, for your note. The Museum of Science in Milan, especially the wing featuring replicas of Leonardo’s inventions, is very impressive. But, only 20-25% of his original notes have survived. We shall never know what else he had discovered… what else he was thinking. Incidentally, there is an interest story about the replicas. In the 1930s, Mussolini had hired an engineer, Roberto Guatelli, to make replicas from the existing drawings. Shortly before WWII started, the collection of Leonardo’s machines were sent to be displayed in Tokyo. During the war they were trapped in Tokyo, and destroyed in American bombing. But after the war, IBM hired Guatelli to re-create the inventions. In time, Guatelli set up a firm, and replicated several collections, that were allowed to tour. I imagine the collections in Milan, Florence, Amboise… were created locally, or purchased from Guatelli’s firm. Again, thanks for he comment.

  8. rauf sarper
    January 22, 2013, 4:22 pm

    I never realized how long it took for the discovery of this letter.
    The details you presented so far are remarkable. I am looking forward to the next installments.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Bulent Atalay
      January 22, 2013, 4:50 pm

      For me, it is ironic that the man who spread himself so thin, flittering from one beckoning project to another, has had to wait half-a-millennium to get his bridge. It is even more ironic that this happened during the reign of Sultan “Yildirim Beyazit.” And, of course, the official/scribe labels Leonardo as a “kafir,” an unfortunate pejorative, when in reality the Ottoman Empire was a polyglot, multicultural society based on meritocracy. Did you get a chance to read the second installment? Warm regards.

  9. melinda iverson
    January 20, 2013, 9:46 am

    Bulent: Always a pleasure to read your work. Being left handed, I was especially drawn to what you said about LdV’s ease with mirror script which I also have found for myself as well. I have suspected for a long time that LdV’s use of the script was less out of secretiveness and more because, as a self taught individual writing mirror script came more easily to him as a boy. One small thing, though, we left handed artists don’t think of our cross-hatching as “negative” though exactly opposite of our right-handed compatriots is very true. Look forward to the next installment.

    • Bulent Atalay
      January 20, 2013, 11:34 am

      It’s pleasure to have your comment. The “positive” and “negative slopes” refer strictly to their descriptions in the language of mathematics. There is an entertaining read, “A Left-Handed History of the World,” by Ed Wright (2007). Among his fellow left-handers, Mr. Wright lists Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Leonardo, Newton, Beethoven… Bill Gates, and four of the last five Presidents of the United States. But, I am personally jealous of left-handed Italians!

  10. Zeynel A. Karcioglu
    January 19, 2013, 1:48 am

    Fascinating no doubt! Dr. Bülent Atalay strikes again with another great piece.
    I hope the bridge can be built on its historical merits, honoring this great artist (Leonardo) and this most splendid location (Golden Horn), without being made a political and commercial football in the hands of Turkish and European Union (EU) politicians and the “great thinkers” of Washington think-tanks.

    • Bulent Atalay
      January 19, 2013, 10:29 am

      Thank you for your thoughtful (and flattering) comments. Indeed, I hope that the bridge can be built without becoming a political football and proceed to completion. There are a number of genuinely gifted individuals involved. We can never thank enough the Norwegian artist Vebjorn Sand for spearheading the Leonardo Bridge in Norway in 2001, and bringing the attention of the world to Leonardo’s design. The project is now in the hands of the architects and engineers in the firm of Hakan Kiran in Istanbul, working in collaboration with an international cast of architects, engineers and historians. You might remember, Sultan Beyazit II is also known as “Yildirim Beyazit” (“Beyazit the thunderbolt”). What remarkable irony. Leonardo has waited long enough. Ultimately, the most important aspect concern is to do justice to Leonardo’s original thoughts.

  11. Henk koens
    January 18, 2013, 6:06 am

    LEONARDO was a genius, but don’t forget the ancient Egyptians and the Romans. A study of their techniques leads to surprising results.
    See the next links:



    • Bulent Atalay
      January 18, 2013, 6:52 am

      Hello Henk (if I may, and please call me Bulent). I agree with you about Ancient Egyptian technology being so far ahead of its time. I’ve even taught some of this technology in a graduate archaeology course. But there is so much speculation about how the Ancients did things. We have to be guarded against reasoning, “We know the best way they could have done it… it must be the way they did it.” We have to avoid the “Thor Heyerdahl model” (sailing a reed boat across the Pacific). I have perused your articles, and will read them again more carefully. Many years ago, wearing my physicist’s cap I was involved in “x-raying” the Chephron/Khafre Pyramid with the cosmic radiation that bombards it naturally. We were looking for hidden chambers. There is a great deal of speculation even with Leonardo’s machines, even though his drawings are so beautiful. Basing my guess on his ray diagrams, I speculated that he created the reflecting telescope. Following a lecture I gave in 2005 in Vancouver, a gentleman in the audience, a nuclear engineer with a hobby as an amateur telescope maker, spent a couple of years doing further research, and actually built a replica of what must have been Leonardo’s telescope. It gave my speculation more credence, and a conviction that Leonardo was even greater than we give him credit. Thank you for bringing the fascinating papers to my attention. Bulent

  12. B Jones
    Washington, DC
    January 17, 2013, 2:10 pm

    What a fascinating article! I look forward to reading Part II: Leonardo’s letter to the Sultan.

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