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/

The hand of Leonardo Da Vinci on all Jesuitic Churches.


Basilica, Venice, Accademia, 238 v.
Basilica, Venice, Accademia, 238 v.

After my post speculating on a link between a mysterious sketch by Leonardo Da Vinci appearing on the upper corner of a page kept in Venice and a possible connection with Saint Paul church of Macau [http://beyondthirtynine.com/was-san-paul-cathedral-in-macau-designed-by-leonardo-da-vinci/ ] further researches have uncovered fresh evidence supporting my hypothesis.

The façade of the Church of Madre de Deus of Macau (known as Saint Paul) was built between 1620 -1664(1) thought to be a direct evolution of the Chiesa del Gesù in Rome, the Mother church of the Jesuits. Similar churches are visible not only in Macau but also in Antwerp, Diu and Goa. The Chiesa del Gesù in Rome was built following the plans of Giacomo Barozzi known as Vignola (2), then Giacomo della Porta took over from Vignola in 1571 because of a change of mind of Cardinal A. Farnese.

Chiesa del Gesù, Rome
Chiesa del Gesù, Rome

Indeed the new design by Giacomo Della Porta(3) had an heavy influence on all type of façades of all Jesuitic churches, including Saint Paul of Macau. The closeness of Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketch is here even more obvious, more than with Macau’s Saint Paul, but this could be explained by the fact that the Macau’s façade was changed after the departure of Carlo Spinola to Japan.

We know that Carlo Spinola (the architect of Saint Paul in Macau) was in contact with Giacomo Della Porta, because Della Porta had worked not only in Rome and Milan but also in Genoa, the city where the Spinola’s family had its seat.

The problem was for me to connect Giacomo della Porta to Leonardo Da Vinci. The connection is indeed possible and it looks historically sound. The teacher of Giacomo della Porta was Cristoforo Solari (1468 – 1524) an architect close to Leonardo – Leonardo mentions Solari in the Codex Atlanticus- and as a matter of fact the Leicester Codex (bought by Lord Leicester in 1717 from Guglielmo Ghezzi) which then became known as Hammer Codex, and today as Bill Gates Codex (4) by Leonardo Da Vinci comes straigh from Guglielmo Della Porta (1515 – 1577) a sculptor and a relative of Giacomo della Porta. They were coming from the same small village of Porlezza, on the Lake of Lugano, right on the border between Italy and Switzerland. Ghezzi had noted on the cover of the Gates Codex that he had bought from Guglielmo della Porta: “I did pay him  as if it was made of gold.”  He had found it in Rome in 1690 inside a chest containing manuscripts and drawings by Guglielmo Della Porta(5)

Complete sketch kept at Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice. Ref. 238 versus (213 X 152 mm.).  The words are discussions on gravity and weights. The recto of the page is also a study on the same subjects. The Basilica seems to have been added years later by Leonardo, finding an empty space on the page.
Complete sketch kept at Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice. Ref. 238 versus (213 X 152 mm.).
The words are discussions on gravity and weights. The recto of the page is also a study on the same subjects. The Basilica seems to have been added years later by Leonardo, finding an empty space on the page.

It is therefore certain that Giacomo della Porta had seen several of Leonardo’s notebooks, not only the Gates Codex, including the drawings of the church kept at Venice’s Gallerie dell’Accademia.

The three architects who spread the Italian Renaissance style throughout Western Europe were Vignola, Sebastiano Serlio(6) and Palladio.

About Sebastiano Serlio we can make another contact with Leonardo. Benvenuto Cellini bought a codex by Leonardo Da Vinci in France from an ‘impoverished noble’. Cellini says in his memoirs that it was full of wondeful architectural and prospectic drawings and he had shown it to Sebastiano Serlio, who was writing a book on architecture. Serlio begged Cellini to borrow it to him but he never returned and lost it. Cellini buried him a second time writing that Sebastiano Serlio was able to undestand the drawing of Leonardo only up to a certain point, the point that his limited intelligence allowed him to.

Giorgio Vasari wrote in his biography of Guglielmo Della Porta that he was instructed by his uncle Jacopo to study ‘le cose di Leonardo’ the things of Leonardo, which presumably included manuscripts and drawings.(7)





1. César Guillén Nuñez Macau’s Church of Saint Paul. A Glimmer of the baroque in China. Hong Kong University Press, 2009.

2. Giacomo (or Jacopo) Barozzi (or Barocchio) da Vignola (often simply called Vignola) (1 October 1507 – 7 July 1573) was one of the great Italian architects of 16th century Mannerism. His two great masterpieces are the Villa Farnese at Caprarola and the Jesuits’ Church of the Gesù in Rome.

3. Giacomo della Porta (c. 1533 – 1602) was an Italian architect and sculptor, who worked on many important buildings in Rome, including St. Peter’s Basilica. He was born at Porlezza, Lombardy and died in Rome.

4. Bill Gates bought what was known then as Hammer Codex in 1994, for 31 millions of USD. Today he could resell it easily getting ten times that price. It is made up of 36 double leaves and it is mainly dealing with water currents, vortex and astronomy.

5. Giorgio Vasari ([1568], VII, p. 422 wrote that Guglielmo della Porta he copied “con molto studio … le cose di Lionardo da Vinci” copied with great care…the things of Leonardo Da Vinci. Guglielmo in 1531 moved to Genoa with his father.

6. Sebastiano Serlio (1475 – 1554) was an Italian mannerist architect who was part of the Italian team building the Fontainbleau Palace in France.

7. The Codex Leicester. Introduction by Carlo Pedretti to Christie’s Sale on 12 December 1980. p. 17.






What a ride! Posts about China & Leonardo cause a storm.


It all started with an innocent post on B39 about the similarities between the church of Saint Paul of Macau with a mysterious sketch by Leonardo Da Vinci kept at Venice’s Gallerie dell’Accademia – please, search my blog and your will find 4 articles worth reading on Leonardo Da Vinci.
That article caught the attention of Ricardo Pinto, the maverick owner of the Portuguese newspaper Ponto Final, which is published in Macau.
In the interview, which was run three weeks ago, I had mentioned a book on Leonardo which I have nearly completed. That article was read by Raquel Carvalho, a Portuguese speaking reporter with the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and she did an interview with me which was printed on November 23rd on the South China Morning Post. Then an Italian article on the blog of Dino Messina ‘La Nostra Storia’ on Corriere della Sera added fuel to the fire.
From there it was picked up by the Daily Mail in Great Britain and soon after the floodgates were shut wide open: The Telegraph, Le Figaro, Liberation, Pravda, Die Zeit, Il Messaggero, several South American, Australian, Turkish, Indian, Pakistani and Chinese newspapers run the same story. Bloggers in China and Taiwan had field days, particularly on December 3rd, with 4.5 million openings and 180.000 comments.
Tomorrow morning 5 December I’ll be at the BBC with Rico Hizon, broadcasting from Singapore, I have received an offer for documentary from Australia.

Well, now speaking about my book I can say that is nearly ready and that I have a sort of agreement with a Chinese publisher, not yet finalized, and I’ll have to translated it from English into Chinese but I am still looking for a serious publisher in Great Britain, or the USA and Australia. If you are interested in it, please, just send me an email and I’ll consider it.


6 December. I have received an offer from a serious English publisher…



Leonardo Da Vinci’s Greatest Mystery at RTHK3

mfile_2505_286488_2_lDiscussed this morning about Leonardo Da Vinci’s greatest mystery at the popular program Morning Brew, run by the Magnificent Phil Whelan.

Here is the link:


And here are the 2 links wwww.beyondthirtynine.com we discussed about during the broadcast:




Was Macau’s Saint Paul Cathedral drawn by Leonardo Da Vinci?

Saint Paul, Macau
Saint Paul, Macau

The Cathedral of Saint Paul (Sao Paulo) was built by the Jesuits at the very centre of Macau. The construction drawings were originally drawn by the blessed Carlo Spinola s.j. (1564 – 1622) who was later martyrized in Nagasaki, Japan.

Today this church lays in ruin, after a fire had destroyed the main building during the XIX century. The only standing part is the stone façade—intricately carved and completed only between 1620 and 1667 by exiled Japanese and local craftsmen.

It was always tought that Carlo Spinola took his inspiration for the façade from the Chiesa del Gesù in Rome  (opened in 1584) but we are here putting forward a new, rather borderline, idea: Carlo Spinola may have seen a drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci kept at Venice’s Academy (Basilica, Venezia, Gallerie dell’Accademia 238 v.) and took inspiration from it.

All the documents now in Venice were acquired in 1822 and were coming from the personal collection of Giuseppe Bossi (1777 – 1815). It is not clear how and where Bossi bought them but they were certainly coming from the Mazenta brothers who had somehow get them from Francesco Melzi (1491/93 – 1568/70) a disciple of Leonardo. Melzi took them back from Amboise, France, around 1520, after Leonardo’s death, as his inheritance. His son Orazio stored them away ‘in a neglected attic’ of his villa in Vaprio d’Adda. So neglected that in April 1587 Lelio Gavardi d’Asola a teacher to the Melzi’s children, stole most or all of them to Pisa. Ambrogio and Guido Mazenta convinced him to return them back to Milan but a few they kept, with Orazio’s permission.  In 1590 Pompeo Leoni, a sculptor working for the Spanish Court, purchased the lot from Orazio Melzi and took them to Madrid – save those which the Mazenta brothers had kept.

Venice indeed possess only few of Leonardo Da Vinci’s works but most of them are famous, one is the celebrated  Vitruvian man, second only to Mona Lisa for popularity, expecially after the planetary success of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. In Venice we find also what is perhaps the most mysterious architectural drawning by Leonardo.(1) His sketch of a Basilica.

Basilica, Venice, Accademia, 238 v.
Basilica, Venice, Gallerie dell’Accademia, 238 v.

This sketch for a façade was traditionally assigned to the year 1490 but it is today seen as one of his late works: according to Carlo Pedretti it should be assigned to the years 1513 – 1516. The great Leonardist Heyderreicht saw in it: ‘A firmly Gothic construction, only apparently belonging to the Renaissance and very impressive for the plastic-dynamic new style.’ (2) Atkin also underlines its striking Baroque characters. (3) That Leonardo had a composition quality which later will be called Baroque has been spotted earlier.(4) About the inborn Baroque’s taste in Leonardo also Frank Zollner speaking of The Fight for the Standard by Rubens,  wrote(5) that: ‘For more than a century the Louvre version of the Battle of Anghiari has been regarded as a an example of the Flemish Baroque, and therefore one might find it hard to accept that this drawing gives a reliable rendering of an early Cinquecento work of art. However, looking at his [Leonardo’s] drawings for the Trivulzio Monument it becomes clear that at the beginning of the sixteen century, Leonardo achieved a composition quality which much later would be categorized as baroque.”

The similarities between the sketch by Leonardo and the façade of the Church of San Paul of Macau are indeed impressive, but is it possible that Spinola had ever seen this drawing by Leonardo? The answer is yes, it is indeed possible because he studied in Milan and Rome starting from 1584 and, after having been ordained a priest in 1594, in 1596 he departed to China and Japan. What is certain is that from 1521 to 1568 and from 1586 until 1590 all the drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci were easily available and visible in Milan, Pisa and Rome, only after 1590, having been taken to Madrid, they were no longer easy to see.

Carlo Spinola, like all Jesuits dispatched to the East had to follow a rigorous and intensive artistic as well as scientific training – he later taught mathematics and astronomy in Kyoto – because Jesuits understood earlier than others that to be accepted in China and Japan meant to be proficient in several disciplines, not only in theology and philosophy.

An article based on this post has been published on the Macanese newspaper Ponto Final, Macau Antigo and lusofonias.



Macau Catedral de São Paulo desenhada por Leonardo Da Vinci?


1. Firpo L. Leonardo Architetto e Urbanista Torino, 1963. On the recto we find notes and drawings about gravity, arms’ movements and falling of weights, which should be dated before the year 1500.

2. Heydenreich L.H. Die Sakralbau-Studien Leonardo da Vinci’s Leipzig, 1929.

3. Arking D. The Ideas of a great architect Rome, 1952. This sketch ‘anticipating a new style’ has been described by several authors. Leonardo is not copying any existing church but he is creating something new. The dating vary greatly: from 1490 until 1514. See also Maltese 1954 p. 358; Brizio, 1964 p. 402; Cogliati Arano, 1966, p. 23-25; Pedretti 1977, p.373; Pedretti 1978 p. 254-255; Cogliati Arano 1980, p. 45-47.

4. On the Baroque qualities of the Battle of Anghiari see M.Lessing ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’s Pazzia Bestialissima,’ The Burlington Magazine, LXIV, 1934, pp. 219-231.

5.Frank Zollner Rubens Reworks Leonardo ‘The Fight for the Standard’ in Achademia Leonardo Vinci, Vol. VI, Giunti, Florence, 1991.