[Achievement – the name given in heraldry to the full pictorial representation of a coat of arms.]
We’re roughly halfway between the two most significant dates
in the life of Leonardo da Vinci – his birth on 15th April 1452, and his death
on 2nd May 1519. Because 2019 is the 500th anniversary of his death it seems an
appropriate time to commemorate his life, and to do that I’ve chosen to look at
one of his achievements – his probable heraldic achievement – and at the coded
references it contains.
I say “probable” because there’s no record of Leonardo da
Vinci using a coat of arms for himself, though his father did. Another
“probable” reason is because of Leonardo’s illegitimacy. The laws on Italian
heraldry in the 15th century were not set in stone as they were in England in
the same period because there were many independent states and they had their
own rules, if they had any at all.
Leonardo was the illegitimate son of Ser Piero d’Antonio da
Vinci (1427-1504), a notary of Florence in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Ser
Piero’s great-grandfather was the first member of the family to enter this
profession and it became something of a family tradition for succeeding
generations to follow suit. Even though Leonardo was illegitimate there’s no
reason to believe that under Florentine heraldic law he was not able to use his
family’s coat of arms. In English heraldry illegitimate children can’t unless
they change the design to show this.
Bearing all this in mind, my interpretation of Leonardo’s
arms, based on various pieces of evidence, is shown here.
The simplicity of the design shows its early origin. In the
early Medieval period when shields were being developed for use in battle the
most desirable property a shield could have was to give protection. It’s no
good going into battle with a flimsy shield. Even the best and most solid
shield may need extra strengthening. To do this extra bars and shapes of metal
or wood were fastened to it. No-one really know when knights began painting
both their shields and the strengthening bars, but over time these developed
into the stripes and shapes we’ve become familiar with in heraldry.
To confuse matters, the bars on the arms of Sir J. M. Barrie,
for instance, don’t represent strengthening bars but the strips from which the
shield itself was made. Leonardo’s bars went on top of the shield, Barrie’s
bars ARE the shield (i.e. a shield a bars, known as a barry shield). I know,
it’s all very confusing.
Leonardo’s family shield clearly originates from these early
days when an ancestor put three strengthening bars on his shield and painted it
red and gold. The earliest reference to Leonardo’s arms comes much later in
1614 in a document which describes the tomb of his father. Ser Piero was buried
in a Florentine monastery now known as Badia Fiorentina in 1504 but its
construction began much earlier. His first wife was buried there in 1474.
Nineteen more members of the family were buried there right up until 1614.
Leonardo himself was not buried there. Sadly, the tomb is now lost.
In 1614 a tomb register of the monastery was made in which
the da Vinci tomb was described. It mentions the coat of arms. However, in 1664
the tomb is mentioned again by a Benedictine monk and makes no mention of a
coat of arms. It may have been damaged or removed.
Moving onto the crest we see another possible indication of
the early origin of Leonardo’s family achievement. The early crests on helmets
were often decorative rather than symbolic. A lot of these early crests
consisted of ostrich feathers. One famous example which still survives are the
three feathers that are the emblem of the Prince of Wales. When there is a fan
of feathers it is called a panache. Yes, someone who is described as having
great panache is being compared to a medieval fan of ostrich feathers.
The funny-looking hat from which the feathers sprout posed a
problem in identification. I’m not sure what type of hat it is (it looks more
like the top of a tent to me), but it also illustrates another development
found in early heraldry, that of holding the fabric which flows behind the
helmet in place. This fabric, called mantling, was probably first used to
prevent the helmet from overheating in bright daylight and boiling the wearer’s
head. In later years a twisted wreath of fabric was used to keep the mantling in
place, as you can see in some of my earlier heraldic articles.
The only full representation of Leonardo da Vinci’s heraldic
achievement appears on the wall of his probable birthplace which is now a
museum (pictured below).
I’ve no information regarding the significance of the seated
lion wearing the helmet but I can make an educated guess. Some people have
called this animal a dog, but it is clearly a lion. It has a lion’s mane and a
lion’s tail. Its presence is an example of the many puns that appear in
heraldry. Puns were an easy way for medieval people who couldn’t read or write
to recognise or deduce the owner of a coat of arms. You can see this is some of
my previous heraldry articles such as the roses of Eleanor Roosevelt, the
hammers of Dag Hammarskjold, and the barry shield of Sir J. M. Barrie. The lion
is obviously meant to represent Leonardo’s name – Leo the lion.
The style of carving suggests a 17th century date so it
isn’t contemporary to Leonardo himself. I came across a blog recently which
suggested it was carved to attract the many aristocratic travellers on their
fashionable Grand Tours of the 17th century to the site. His seems very
Finally, the da Vinci arms has found its way into the
municipal arms of the town of Vinci itself (below). On 9th June 1860 the town
was granted a coat of arms which depicts Leonardo’s family arms in the bottom