Leonardo Da Vinci was certainly the first to have sketched a modern looking and working bicycle, which, by the way, it is still the most energy efficient machine ever created by man.
We find Leonardo’s sketch in the Atlantic Codex (133v) kept at the Ambrosiana Library in Milan. It has been drawn with carbon pencil around 1493 (we may date it because of its position).
Now, did this sketch had any influence on the creation of modern bikes? No, not at all, for the simple reason that it has not been seen from the end of the XVI century up to a few decades ago, and here is the story of this sketch.
Most of Leonardo Da Vinci papers were left to one of his disciples, Francesco Melzi, who moved them back from Amboise, France, to Milan around 1520 but after Melzi’s death, his son Orazio did not care about them, finally selling to the sculptor Pompeo Leoni who, acting like a new Attila the Hun, took them to Spain and then, using scissors and glue, cut and paste a great part of those leaves.
The Atlantic codex (so called because of the large leaves, normally used for atlases) was then taken back to Milan and donated by Count Arconati to the Ambrosiana library. It was stolen by Napoleon in 1796 and taken to Paris, but on Napoleon’s downfall, it was moved back to Milan.
In need of some restorations, in 1966 it was given to the monks of the Laboratorio di Restauro of Grottaferrata. During their work, they opened two leaves which were glued together to hide some erotic sketches, which Leonardo seemed to fancy a lot sketching, and there, lo and behold! they saw the bike…
An expert on Leonardo was called, Augusto Marinoni, who then published his finding in his 1972’s book: “The Unknown Leonardo.“
He attributed this sketch not to Leonardo himself – being not in the usual fine hand of the Master – but to one of his disciple, possibly Gian Giacomo Caprotti, known as Salaì, who may have copied an original by Leonardo. Or, we may add here, a wooden prototype built by Leonardo.
Marinoni’s announcement caused him a lot of troubles, with some of his colleagues accusing him of being a cheat and have done it himself. The most virulent accusation came from Hans-Erhard Lessing, curator of the “Landesmuseum für Technik und Arbeit” di Mannheim, but later he was proven wrong, so the authenticity of the sketch still stands, being accepted by all Leonardo’s experts, like Carlo Pedretti and Alessandro Vezzosi.