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