The Da Vinci Goad

In Renaissance Florence, a number of designated boxes placed throughout the city allowed citizens to make anonymous denunciations of various moral crimes—in 1461, for example, the artist-monk Filippo Lippi was accused of fathering a child with a nun. But the crime that the government was really trying to control was sodomy, so notoriously prevalent that contemporary German slang for a homosexual was Florenzer. The common nature of the verrocchios_david_photooffense did not erase the threat of serious consequences. In 1476, Leonardo da Vinci, on the verge of his twenty-fourth birthday, was named as one of four men who had practiced “such wickedness” with the seventeen-year-old apprentice of a local goldsmith. There is little doubt that Leonardo was arrested. Although any time he may have spent in jail was brief, and the case was dismissed, two months later, for lack of corroborating witnesses, he had plenty of time to ponder the possible legal punishments: a large fine, public humiliation, exile, burning at the stake. It is impossible to know if this experience affected the artist’s habit, later cited as a mark of his character, of buying caged birds from the market just to set them free. But it does seem connected with the drawings he made, during the next few years, of two fantastical inventions: a machine that he explained was meant “to open a prison from the inside,” and another for tearing bars off windows.

Claudia Roth Pierpont

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2 Responses to “The Da Vinci Goad”


  1. 1 sally November 8, 2017 at 1:23 pm

    Oh, I knew Da Vinci was damn creative, but I never heard –nor saw pictures of these two inventions. And do you suppose the “designated boxes” have been replaced by the FB — and who might be arrested soon? (and Filippo Lippi –hmmmmm — a Browning poem — or did I make that up inside my head? I will google—wheeeee)

    • 2 bluenred November 8, 2017 at 8:37 pm

      The wonderments of Leon are without number, and new ones are unearthed all the time. For instance, it was only recently revealed that that’s Leon there on the drums, in this song (which mentions him by name):


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