Leonardo Da Vinci in India

An excerpt from my next book, dedicated to Leonardo Da Vinci and the East.

Elephanta Caves
Elephanta Caves

The manuscript F of Leonardo Da Vinci is a pocket notebook kept at the Library of the Institute de France in Paris and there we find the following puzzling note on the back of the cover.

Map of Elephanta in India which has Antonello the heberdasher. (I)

Several hypothesis were advanced in the past to interpreter it but the one which is widely accepted today is that Leonardo was referring to a place called Elephanta. And a place with that name really exists in India: it is the small island of Garapur in the bay of Mumbai, which the Portuguese named Elephanta because of a colossal sculpture of an elephant placed in front of a temple which was in 1814 placed in the Victoria Gardens of Mumbai while several statues dating from the VIII century were destroyed by Portuguese zealots.

Where Leonardo heard about it? Well it is known that Leonardo was not much interested in America but he was very keen to know anything connected to the East and he knew several explorers who had travelled to India and China. So much so that we are aware of another reference on India made by Leonardo where he wrote about the habits of distributing to the faithful some wooden fragments of miraculous statues to be then consumed.

One of Leonardo’s acquaintance was Andrea Corsali (1487 – ?) an explorer from Empoli in Tuscany who sent letters to Giuliano de’ Medici, son of Lorenzo il Magnifico and brother of pope Leo X. His first letter from Cochin is dated 6 January 1515 – but it was actually 1516 – because the Florentine calendar was starting ab incarnatione meaning that the beginning of the new year was falling on 25 march, therefore all documents bearing a date from 1st of January until 24 March must be moved one year ahead – Corsali should have know well Leonardo Da Vinci because he wrote about his vegetarianism. Incidentally Giuliano De Medici was also the patron of Leonardo and, while recalling the customs of the inhabitants of Gujarat, on the North-West coast of India, Corsali had this to say:

Between Goa and Rasigut there is a land called Cambaia, where the river Indus flows into the sea. There live pagans called Gujarats, great merchants. Part of them wear ‘ascetic’ clothes and part Turkish. They don’t eat anything with blood, neither let anybody harm any living creature, like our Leonardo da Vinci. They live of rice, milk and other inanimate things. Because of this nature, they have been conquered by Moors, and their actual suzerain is a Muslim King who owns a stone that when you put it in water or in the mouth quickly win over all poisons.

They were Jaina in the Indian region of Guajarat, and they were known for their complete rejection of violence. We don’t know the end of Corsali but seems to have been detained in Ethiopia, a country were all travellers were welcome but…they were not allowed to leave.

Another Florentine had been put in charge of the trade with India by the Portuguese. His name was Francesco Corbinelli and he was born in Florence in 19 June 1466, he moved to Portugal first, marrying Maria Marchionni, daughter of the powerful Florentine trader Bartolomeo Marchionni and a trade partner of Giuliano del Giocondo – brother of Francesco, the husband of the Gioconda, the supposed model for the Mona Lisa – Leonardo Nardi and Girolamo Sernigi. Then Corbinelli moved to Goa where he wrote a famous letter dated 22 August 1503 in which he described the second voyage of Vasco de Gama, collecting the impressions of the sailors of the Santo Antonio he had met few days earlier. We know of the friendship of Leonardo with another Florentine traveler Benedetto Dei (1418 – 1492) a spy for the Medici,  as they had made a short trip together to Milan at the beginning of 1482 and he was in fact the recipient of the report, written in 1487-88 by Leonardo, about a trip to the Syria and Armenia and another letter to the Diodario di Soria (the governor of Syria). Leonardo Da Vinci wrote of a trip he made to the East in the Codex Atlanticus, where it appears that he had traveled as far as Syria, and an attempt was made by J.P Richter in 1883 to prove that he had been there just before 1483, but this hypothesis was demonstrated impossible since 1925 by Calvi. The letter was addressed by Leonardo to the Diodario or Diwādar of Syria, lieutenant of the Sultan of Babylon (according to the usage of the time Babylon was Cairo). In it Leonardo describes in the first person his experiences in Egypt, Cyprus and Istanbul. The falling of a mountain, the submerging of a city followed bya deluge and his words are accompanied by wonderful sketches. Carlo Pedretti and Kenneth Clark consider Leonardo’s letter to the Diodario as part of a fantasy written, perhaps, with the intention of writing a novel in the form of a travelogue similar to those we find described in books appearing into Leonardo’s personal library, like Mandeville or in the Metaura d’Aristotile Volgare, Prisciano’s De Situ Orbi and Plinius’ Naturalis Historia. Even in Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili we find something similar even if Leonardo did not own a copy of Colonna’s book. Recent dating of such composition puts it to 1508. Sigmund Freud in his famous essay on Leonardo (II) rightly took such notes of his travels as childish pranks, because according to him, Leonardo remained a playful child for all his life, never growing up. Even if, when dealing with Leonardo, surprises can never be ruled out. Also the drawings for a bridge to be built in Istanbul in one of his notebook were taken for a prank at the beginning, until a note was found in 1957 in the Sultan’s archive, proving that a correspondence on the subject had been indeed exchanged. Franz Babingher, an Orientalist at the University of Gottingen and Munchen, author of a book on Mehemet the Conqueror discovered in the archive of the Topkapi Palace of Istanbul a note in Turkish of a letter sent by Leonardo Da Vinci in 1502 to Sultan Bāyezīd II proposing to build over the Bosporus a single span bridge, 240 meters long and 24 meters wide. Another possible source of information for Leonardo was Giovanni da Empoli( 1483 – 1518) who died in Canton, in October 1517 while on a Portuguese ship commanded by Peres de Andreade who was taking the ill-fated delegation of ambassador Tomé Pires to Peking, looking for commercial concessions. Waiting for the permission to carry on with their travel they disembarked but they were somehow infected, probably by typhus, which killed him and his two fellow Florentines, Raffaello Galli and Benedetto Pucci.


1. Piata d’Ellefante djndia chella Antonello/merciaio.

This pocket notebook was stolen in 1795 by Napoleon and never returned to the Ambrosiana Library of Milan.

2. S. Freud Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood Norton 1964.

This article has been published in Italian on the Blog of Dino Messina/Corriere della Sera: http://lanostrastoria.corriere.it/2014/10/13/leonardo-da-vinci-e-lindia/

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