Leonardo da Vinci Renaissance man NEW YORK, PALO ALTO, PARIS and SHANGHAI
A newly discovered volume of Leonardo’s journal, written a few months before his death on May 2nd 1519, records his visit to the year 2019, as the guest of a mysterious time-traveller
2019 in brief
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IN RIVERS, THE water you touch is the last of what has passed, and the first of that which comes: so with time present. But today a strange visitor appeared suddenly in my studio, as from a large bubble in the air. Inhabiting another time, he finds amusement in conveying people to eras distant from their own, but in secret because this is forbidden by his own people. He offered to transport me 500 years into the future, provided I preserve his secret. The natural desire of good men being knowledge, I agreed to his proposal.
At my host’s suggestion I must wear simple clothing. He will give out that I am a philosopher who, living in seclusion for many years, prefers not to speak. He has given me a rectangle of black glass, and a kind of brooch worn on the ear that will render the speech of those around me into my own tongue. If I clutch this glass rectangle closely at all times, I am told, my appearance will not seem unusual.
By strange means that carry men instantaneously to various parts of the world, without motion, my host has taken me to Shanghai, a city far to the east, in Cathay, and to New York, a city far to the west, in the lands named after Amerigo Vespucci. There are buildings of enormous height, made of glass seemingly unsupported by stone or brick. Some are adorned with moving coloured lights that create the illusion of a window to another place.
Far above these buildings soar many flying machines, conveying people and goods. Unlike the ones I have seen in my dreams, their wings do not move like those of a bird or a butterfly, but are fixed. The motive power is derived from a kind of fluid, similar to naphtha. The machines must be fed with this fluid, as a lamp is fed with oil, when they return to the ground.
In the roads between the buildings of these great cities are armoured carriages in countless numbers that propel themselves without the use of horses. These carriages too must be fed with the naphtha fluid. The parts that are not armoured in metal plate are made of a strange material that is light and flexible, yet strong, and may be formed in any desired shape or colour, and is also used to make many other objects.
The lights adorning the buildings, and many other things besides, are fed not by the naphtha fluid, but by a second fluid, invisible to the eye, that can be conducted along metal wires, coated in the strange material. By means of this fluid ovens can be heated without the need for wood or other fuel, and stairways and metal boxes can be made to move, to convey people within buildings. This fluid can also cause the sound of a lute, or another instrument, to be greatly increased, so that its music can be heard even by a great multitude gathered together.
But most mysterious to me is a third fluid that flows invisibly through the air and conveys writing and sounds and pictures between the glass rectangles, allowing them to act as windows to other places, and to capture the sight of things more faithfully than any painting. So wondrous is this power that people gaze constantly at their glass rectangles, and at the images therein. Painting is no longer the sole imitator of all the visible works of nature, and just as the mirror is the master of painting, so too is this kind of mirror, which fixes images in place.
We visit the land of California, to observe the flight of a machine that lifts objects into the sky on a pillar of fire, and then returns to the ground; and those objects it carries are thrown around the Earth so that they stay aloft and circle its globe, as the Moon does. The inventor of these machines has also created self-propelling carriages capable of moving without human supervision. I wish to meet this man but my host fears he would recognise me. For it seems my name and appearance are known, even in this time, and my works are preserved.
It pleases me that many of my ideas have been brought to completion using materials and methods unknown in my time, including a flying machine held aloft by rotating wings, and an apparatus by which a man can breathe underwater. It pleases me also that my paintings afford much satisfaction to mankind. Before returning me to my own time, my host takes me to Paris, to see my portrait of La Gioconda hanging in a place of honour. That reminds me: I really must finish it.
As transcribed and translated by Tom Standage, deputy editor, The Economist