Invention of the Bicycle – Leonardo da Vinci

1. Between 1966 and 1969, the monks of the “Laboratorio di Restauro” of the Abbey of Grottaferrata, near Rome, were entrusted with the restoration of the Codex Atlanticus of Leonardo da Vinci. A binding contract was drawn up between the then Prefect of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana of Milan, Monsignor Paredi, and the Director of the “Laboratorio di Restauro” of Grottaferrata, Padre Daniele Barbiellini, which contract is still preserved in the archives. The fundamental clause of this contract was that absolutely no person was to be admitted to see the folios of the Codex during the years of the restoration, and this strict clause was always rigorously observed.

2. During the process of the restoration, the monks separated two sheets that a sixteenth-century conservator, Pompeo Leoni, had folded in half and glued together when he joined about 1300 of Leonardo’s sheets and fragments to form the single codex now referred to as the Codex Atlanticus. The separation of these two sheets revealed some scurrilous scribbles and the rough sketch of a vehicle resembling a bicycle. It is certain that these drawings were not made by Leonardo, but probably by pupils of Leonardo’s “bottega,” the bicycle sketch apparently a bad reproduction made in brown crayon of an original by Leonardo himself, since lost.

3. Professor Marinoni, who was entrusted by the Commissione Vinciana of Rome with the transcription of the Codex Atlanticus for the National Edition of Leonardo’s Manuscripts and Drawings, received from the publisher, the Casa Editrice Giunti of Florence, a photograph of each sheet of the restored Codex, taken after the codex had been returned to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, and it was on these photographs that he based his diplomatic and critical transcriptions. The Codex has always been guarded in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana with exceptional safety measures. The scurrilous scribbles and the sketch of the “bicycle,” which had remained invisible for about four hundred years, were in the photograph numbered folio 133v.

4. Professor Marinoni dated the sketch circa 1493, the same date as that written by Leonardo on the front page of Codex Madrid I. On folio 10r of that codex there is a sketch drawn by Leonardo showing a chain with cubic teeth, the same cubic teeth that can be seen in the rough sketch of folio 133v of the Codex Atlanticus. Marinoni’s opinion was shared by other scholars (e.g., Professor Baud of the University of Strasbourg and Professor James McGurn of York), and although many others remained skeptical, “the vigorous skepticism of the critics has failed to undermine any of the evidence for authenticity set out by Prof. Augusto Marinoni, the leading Da Vinci scholar.”

Marinoni’s scientific fame is certainly not based on this minor study of the “bicycle,” but rather on his immensely important activity and his fundamental works produced throughout more than fifty years as a Leonardo scholar, especially his transcriptions of several Leonardo da Vinci manuscripts. Other works contributing to Marinoni’s international stature include his many critical studies and volumes on Leonardo da Vinci, as well as important studies in medieval lexicography, historiography, and dialectology.

The importance given here to the “bicycle question” derives only from the groundless attacks of Professor Hans Erhard Lessing, a retired curator for the museum of Technology and Labor of Mannheim, who declares that the 19th century bicycle was invented by his compatriot, the Baron Drais von Sonnerbronn, in 1897 (a fact that no one questions). Lessing makes further declarations as follow.

1. That the “ink” of the sketch came into use only during the 19th century (although the sketch in question is a brown charcoal drawing, and Lessing, himself, speaks of a “brown crayon” drawing).

2. That during the 1960’s, a group of monks “from the Catholic University of Milan” restored the Codex Atlanticus under the guidance of Professor Marinoni (although we know that the Codex Atlanticus left the Ambrosiana only to be restored at Grottaferrata).

3. That the sketch was a forgery produced by the monks.

4. That in 1974 Marinoni announced the discovery while delivering the fourteenth “Lettura Vinciana”, saying that “his” monks had discovered it.

5. That Marinoni himself produced the “forgery” during the restoration at Grottaferrata.

6. That Marinoni himself (as Lessing realized that the former version was clearly impossible) produced the “forgery” after the return of the Codex to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, that is to say, during the time when Marinoni could work only from the photographs (!).

Dut regarding this last version, Prof. Lessing himself gives unquestionable proof against what he said before, in a note of October 17, 1997, take up by the magazine “New Scientist” on an article, “On yer byke, Leonardo” of October 18, 1997, signed by Jonathan Knight ( He says that “chemical analysis of the brown crayon marks (in the article no mention is made of ‘ink’) that make up the sketch could provide conclusive proof”. But unfortunately the restored pages have been sealed away in plastic to preserve them.

He does not realize that this thin layer of “plastic preservation” makes it impossible for anybody to make additions of any kind to the sketch of Folio 133v, or to any folio whatsoever of the manuscript.

This “proof” backfires on Prof. Lessing and demolishes hi s version of a “forgery after the restoration of Grottaferrata.

These absurd fantasies need no comment; a serious scholar bases his assertions on real evidence and tries, at least, to be coherent and consistent with himself.

Although these assertions are pure nonsense, they seriously offend the Laboratorio di Restauro of Grottaferrata, the Biblioteca Ambrosiana of Milan, the Catholic University of Milan, and, in particular, the memory of Professor Augusto Marinoni, an extremely upright scholar and the most highly qualified expert in the field of Leonardo’s manuscripts.


prof. Augusto Marinoni

(15-6-1911 / 31-12-1997)


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