Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Queer Achievement: The Da Vinci Heraldic Code

[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 plausible.

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 half.

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