Leonardo’s mechanical lion

leone_meccanico-250x300[1]Leonardo had built an automaton (a robot) in the shape of a lion, which was capable of walking, then after sitting on his hind legs, his chest opened and some fleur-de-lis (lily flowers) were taken out and offered to the person standing in front of it. All people who had seen it were amazed. Vasari described it in his Life of Leonardo and Gian Paolo Lomazzo, although he never saw it, quotes the words of Francesco Melzi, Leonardo‘s disciple. (1)
The construction drawings are lost and so we do not know how it was built but what is clear is that for functioning he had to have some cogs, pulleys and an escapement system inside. (2)

It appeared first on 12 July 1515 at the entry in the city of Lyons of the new King of France, Francis I. Possibly Leonardo had built it in Florence, were real lions were kept behind Piazza della Signoria (3) and then took it to France.
It appeared again in Amboise, almost five centuries ago, on 30 September 1517 according to Lorenzo Ariosto. Again, the following year it was shown at Amboise at the celebrations for the marriage of Lorenzo II de Medici with a French Princess.

In 2006 Jill Burke published a newly found document in the Oxford Art Journal with the description of another Lion created by Leonardo in Milan for the entry into the city made by King Louis XII of France in 1500, it was simpler: he could stand up and opening the chest where the lilies were. That was possibly his first prototype. (4)

Nothing more is known about this robot created by Leonardo. But a mechanical Lion did appear in France in 1600 according to a little-known booklet written by Michelangelo Buonarroti Junior. The author says that it was ‘similar to the one that Leonardo da Vinci carried in the city of Lyon for the arrival of King Francis’ but since the working system and functioning was the same, it is possible that it was the same machine. (5)

Leonardo’s biographers seem to have overlooked a previous appearance of the famous lion, again in the city of Lyons, and on a royal occasion: the entry into the city by King Henry II on 23 September 1548 with his mature lover, Diane de Poitier at his side. His wife, Queen Catherine de’ Medici, made her entry the following day. Here is what Leonie Frieda (6) says:

Upon entering the city, which had been transformed into resemble Ancient Rome, the King was greeted by 160 men dressed as Roman legionnaires. The party then came into an artificial forest from which emerged a group of nymphs led by a young beauty carrying a silver bow and quiver, representing the goddess of the hunt. The lovely girl approached the King leading a mechanical lion on a chain of silver and black silk, symbolizing the city of Lyons. Saluting the King in verse on behalf of the city, she symbolically offered him its keys.

Catherine wanted to impress the townsfolk to make clear that she was the real Queen, not Diane de Poitier and she entered on a litter, covered from head to shoes with a dress full of diamonds. Again, the authorities of Lyons had the mechanical lion ready for her to see but that day it took out of its chest a heart decorated with the Medici’s coat of arms. (7)



1. G.P Lomazzo Trattato dell’Arte della Pittura, Scultura et Architettura […] diviso in sette libri Pontio, Milan, 1584.
2.Luca Garai in: The Automatic Lion in Leonardo Da Vinci & France CB Publishers under Carlo Pedretti’s supervision, Amboise 2009.
3. In a note in the Codex Atlanticus datable to 1513 (f. 249 r.a.) the words ‘room of the lions of Florence’ appear.
4.Jill Burke Meaning and Crisis in the early Seventeen Century: interpreting Leonardo’s Lion Oxford Art Journal XXIX March 2006.
5. Michelangelo Buonarroti il Giovane Descritione delle felicissime nozze della Cristianissima Maesta’ di Madama Maria Medici Regina di Francia e di Navarra, Florence, 1600, p.10.
6. Leonie Frieda Catherine de Medici. Renaissance Queen of France Harper Collins, New York, 2003. Pag. 86
7.Leonie Frieda Catherine de Medici. Renaissance Queen of France Harper Collins, New York, 2003. Pag. 87

Chinese, beware, the macaron are coming!

Virna Lisi playing the part of Catherine de' Medici in the movie 'Queen Margot.'
Virna Lisi playing the part of Catherine de’ Medici in the movie ‘Queen Margot.’

Macaron are marching out of Paris and are invading the world! They were a rare sight until a few years ago but they are since ubiquitous and even in Hong Kong they are seen in café and confectionery shops. We spotted them in great numbers in Italy as well as in Japan and Korea and if strong countermeasures will not be taken in a few years they might even replace the famed moon-cakes from the desk of world-savvy Chinese families. Macaron are predominantly a French confection and there has been much debate about the origin of the original recipe. They are basically a sweet meringue-based confection made with egg white, icing sugar, granulated sugar, almond powder or ground almond, and food colouring, in French pastel colours. Then macaron is commonly filled with ganache, buttercream or jam filling sandwiched between two biscuits (cookies).


The name sounds clearly Italian, where it is widely used as maccheroni to call the oldest type of pasta created in Naples, a kind probably older than the spaghetti. We do believe that they could be traced back to the arrival of Catherine de’ Medici’s in France, on marrying King Henry II in 1533. Catherine brought several things to France like the art of making perfumes, taking her personal perfume-maker, a man called Renato with her, as well as the fashion of using fans. Reports sent to Isabella D’Este only a few years before Maria de’ Medici’s arrival described French noble-ladies as: “Rather filthy, but with pretty faces and quite available to be kisses and being touched.”

It was not until the 1830s that macaron began to be served two-by-two with the addition of jams, liqueurs, and spices. The macaron as it is known today, composed of two almond meringue discs filled with a layer of buttercream, jam, or ganache filling, was originally called the “Gerbet” or the “Paris macaron.” Pierre Desfontaines of the French pâtisserie Ladurée has sometimes been credited with such creation but another baker, Claude Gerbet, also claims to be the inventor.


The term macaroon was used in 18th-century England, where rich young hipsters sported outlandish styles characterized by certain over-the-top clothing with very tall powdered wigs and tiny caps on top. “Englishman Italianate, devil incarnate!” as they said. They were called the macaroons because on their travels to France and Italy were they acquired a taste for what was perceived as continental, hence the derogative nickname given to what was perceived as foreign. In the United States the name took another turn , and if you’ve ever heard the song “Yankee Doodle,” you will know what we mean. The chorus mocks a dishevelled “Yankee” soldier whose attempt to look sharp and well-dressed was to “stick a feather in his hat and call it macaroni.”