Leonardo da Vinci bears the burden of great expectations. The undeniable breadth and depth of his genius means there was, it seems, no intellectual feat of which this original Renaissance Man was incapable. Almost five centuries after his death, his legacy thrives not merely in his paintings, two of which, The Last Supper and Mona Lisa, are arguably the world’s most famous and celebrated works of art. It also throbs in the chests of those whose damaged hearts have been repaired by the British surgeon inspired by Leonardo’s writings on the mitral valve. It takes to the air on the tiny wings of a bluebottle-sized robot designed by aerospace engineers captivated by Leonardo’s studies on flight. It even lingers, courtesy of the entrepreneur Alessandro Passi, in a range of pasta shapes, perfume bottles, and pepper grinders – all based on Leonardo’s drawings.
Leonardo was certainly wide-ranging and eerily modern in his interests. With his dreams of manned flight, submarines, and weapons of mass destruction such as giant crossbows and doomsday cannons, he almost seems more a prophet of our age than a product of his own. His known accomplishments – in anatomy, engineering, hydraulics, optics and painting – are undeniably astounding. But often he is given a little too much credit. He tends to get abstracted from his own time and fast-forwarded into ours, and in doing so he slips out of documented history and soars into the giddy realms of myth. So it is that he gets credited with tasks as varied as forging the Shroud of Turin by taking the world’s first photograph, or serving as the Grand Poobah of an arcane lodge charged with keeping ancient secrets about the bloodline of Christ.
Just how much do these and other claims stand up to scrutiny? "Blinding ignorance does mislead us," Leonardo himself said. "Oh, wretched mortals, open your eyes!" So let’s open our eyes and look at some of these claims about Leonardo in the light of documented fact, not hero worship or wishful thinking. (bolding mine)
And then he tells is as it is:
The history of the Shroud of Turin is complex and controversial enough without having Leonardo thrown into the mix, but he has been pushed forward as its creator. In 1993 Nicholas Allen proposed that the image on the linen shroud could have been produced in the Middle Ages via a photographic process that involved suspending a cadaver in the air for three or four days while its image slowly blossomed on the chemical-soaked cloth. Others were quick to give Leonardo the credit, even though he was born a century after the first documented reference to the Shroud. But who else could have pipped Daguerre – by some three and a half centuries – to the world’s first photo?
Like others before him, Leonardo did experiment with a camera obscura. But there is zero evidence that he had any knowledge of – let alone used – photo-sensitive chemicals. Even if he did invent something as earth-shattering as photography – and it’s a truly massive if – why should he have kept quiet about it? Why not take more pictures? The fact is that not a single shred of evidence links Leonardo to either photographic technology or the Shroud of Turin. As one critic has written: “The premise is more demanding of faith than is the authenticity of the Shroud.”
Yep! But blinding ignorance will persist.