Da Vinci’s testimony concerning the people of the downstream time, their customs and their most marvellous devices
From a newly found letter addressed to Duke Ludovico Sforza, dated August 4th, 1498, and signed Leonardo da Vinci
Deciphered, translated and edited by Frederick Turner
To his most learned and illustrious excellency, my lord Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan:
I send this by a trusted servant in the cipher that we have agreed upon. I wish to inform your grace of a most wonderful visitation that it has been my fortune to undergo, and the more terrible warning that I must convey to you.
Let me say at once, beware of the King of France: he has designs against your state, and will, if what I have seen and heard has substance, seek your overthrow in the coming year. But I fear that you shall not find this warning credible unless I give an account of its origin; and the great strangeness of such an account is, I know, your good warrant to discredit it when you know it, and to consider your servant mad or deceived by a demon. Yet I offer the very wildness of this tale as proof of its veracity; since though as an artist of the brush I might imagine such a thing, I could not in words unless it were true.
I was visited three nights ago in my chamber by the spectre of a woman most outlandishly dressed–and to my thought immodestly–who told me in very poor Italian that she came from a time two thousands of years in advance of ours. She and her fellow-alchemists had arranged this visit, to solve some curiosity proposed by their scholars, whether that ancient painter Leonardo would wonder much at the engines and devices of a time five hundred years after his own–for they believed that the marvels of their own time might overwhelm my reason and thus bewray their inquiry.
Accordingly she attached to me–for what philosopher in the most bold court of Ludovico, even one of paint and canvas, could refuse?–a curious apparatus, of which I give a sketch in my margin. At once I saw through the eyes of a man of the twentieth century after Christ, in the year, I learned, of 1999. He dwelt in that country recently discovered by Christopher Columbus, in a city called New York–for to my dismay it appeared that the English, and not our Italians nor even our allies the Spanish, had placed colonies in that land.
What marvels I saw I must reserve for a broader account. Yet I must make mention here of their prodigious devices–flying machines that can carry four hundred people; boxes that show in movement, life, perspective and color, pictures from far off or long ago; self-moving carriages; bridges and roadways of prodigious size; and buildings that, though in crude taste and style, and very dully ornamented, touched indeed like the tower of Babel the very clouds themselves. I shall in my notebooks endeavour through the coming months to entertain your grace with pictures and plans of what I saw; though they use most marvellous materials such as I have never seen, like to silver or ivory or perfect glass, which I shall not attempt to draw. There is one device that gave me especial wonder, of which I shall give an account later.
They have a very curious republic, in which each man is free to do almost anything he wishes; and yet they have a million laws; and their great liberty is external only, for they appear to have little freedom from the inner tyrannies of flesh and desire, and they can barely reason at all, so swayed are they by their wishes of the heart, their addictions, and their bodies. Though they are often of great age–I saw among them few children and youths, though they pay great worship to youth in their pictured plays and vulgar art–they are in many ways like children. They clothe themselves with easy garments that require no grace in the wearing, like peasants or boys. Their youth themselves wear rings and studs in their bodies, like the savages of Africa. Strangely, they are often quite pious in religion, but make little or no sacrifice of life for their faith, and a thousand creeds and rituals flourish without check. Their crafts and markets are most excellent; their poor are as rich as our prosperous citizens. They have had the most dreadful wars imaginable within living memory, but have forgotten them. There is a great weapon among them that can destroy a city; and the fear of it has turned their youth away from martial exercises and the practice of virtu`.
Each one knows much of the technical art or academic study at which thay labor, but little else–a seller of prosciutto in the Milan street knows more of other nations, of matters of history and state, of languages, letters, arts, and machines, of mathematics, of general philosophy, than for the most part do they; yet I–or the man whose mind I inhabited unawares–met a few persons of both sexes with great wisdom and astonishing knowledge. Their state, I mused, is like an animal, each organ specialized to its task, but not like a city of complete souls in a civil society. Their great wealth had often rather limited them than opened to them the heights of the liberal arts. You, my lord, know the world as deeply as do any of them, though they have the advantage of half a thousand years.
Their women are dressed and behave like our whores, without exception, but for a few that I saw of humbler condition who seemed to have come from Cathay or Cipangu; yet I am certain that in their lives they are for the most part chaste and modest. They are very bold, and have mastered the art of avoiding pregnancy, so that they carry themselves like wealthy bachelors. In truth, when I became accustomed to it, I found it not unpleasant; and their sodomite youth are likewise bold, open, and sometimes beautiful despite the crudity of their clothing.
Their sciences are prodigious; they have plumbed the depths of the heavens and probed the most infinitesimal grains of matter; they have unlocked the secrets of life and marvellously investigated every corner of the human body. In this work I must confess myself simply humbled; yet how such people, each knowing little except the details of his own expertise, can produce such wonders of understanding is not given to me to know.
Their academic or court arts–they have no aristocracy, being a republic, but their universities take the place of our courts–are to my mind simpleminded and foolish. Court paintings, which command great prices, often represent no real thing, but are mere problems or diagrams of composition, proportion, or color, such as we of the Florentine or Milanese schools solve in our sketches and underdrawings, as parts of a full work. But their vulgar graphic arts, such as merchants use to advertise their wares, are often subtle and excellent. (They have a fine paint, called acrylic, like that ingenious method I invented for my great wall-painting of the Last Supper.) Their court arts in general seem to affect a bitterness, a sarcasm or irony, that proves them in their eyes better than the mass of the people. Their court music, again, is without melody or harmony, and thus has no language to convey humanity or thought or feeling; but their vulgar music, though strange and beating like a smith’s anvil or cobbler’s last, is full of life and vigor, and sometimes beautiful; and the old music of a century or two before, which they marvellously recapture with subtle devices, is more excellent and perfect than any I have heard in our own time. They also make very splendid moving pictures, with actors that can move the heart and spirit, and fine music and delightful landscapes.
To sum them up: truly, my lord, if they could unite their technical excellence and wealth with our humanitas and wisdom, they could enjoy an era of greatness more perfect than that of the Romans and the Greeks themselves; they have at their disposal the powers to make this world into a garden and them into new Adams and Eves. But since each one is but part of a full human being (I speak in general, for I met some with that roundness of education that we expect of the true gentleman), I fear they must make altogether new schools or utterly change those that they have if their great promise is to come to fruit. What they lack, with their crude and ugly straight lines in thought and art, is that turbulence of natural richness, the curling and whorling of air and water and life: the quality of beauty.
But in my account I neglect what I have learned that bears, my most gracious lord, upon your urgent safety and welfare. They have among them the most marvellous machine of all, called a computer–all I met had one, and treated it as of little amazement. Yet these machines can speak instantly, all to each other over the whole world; they contain all the knowledge of mankind; they can show plays and pageants and galleries of arts; and they can in some measure think as men do, for they can most intelligently play against men such games as chess, and defeat great masters of that art. This indeed is a prodigious natural magic, and I shall in the future seek a way to embody in my own art–in a smile, perhaps, more lovely than that of Ginevra di Benci in the piece of mine you praised–the idea of a mere material object that can speak and breathe.
But I digress. My lord, while the man I inhabited was consulting his device, I placed into his mind your name, hoping both that your fame should have lasted until that time so that I might learn something of advantage to you, and that you should forgive me in view of my good intentions. He wrote it into his machine, which found a manuscript in a barbarous kind of French that I could read. In the year 1499, it said, the French overthrew you and drove you from Milan. I beg you, my lord, use this intelligence to protect yourself and those that love you, including this,
your most humble and devoted servant,
Leonardo da Vinci.