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Leonardo Da Vinci – Innovation in Daily Things

Santiago Iñiguez [1]

Da_vinci Leonardo Da Vinci [2] Notes on Cookery and Table Etiquette [3] (*)

Leonardo’s notebooks on culinary affairs ooze with so much irony that he probably wanted them inaccessible, a possible reason why the maestro wrote them backwards; an awkward practice common to all his handwritten documents. Amusingly, a menu designed by Leonardo and Botticelli [4] for a Florence tavern was so illegible that, despite the proportioned figures drawn by the latter, neither clients nor cooks were able to interpret it.

Leonardo is considered a genius for all seasons and his notebooks also show that he was a tireless worker and that he kept everything under observation, his senses on the alert in order to improve objects and daily routines. This openness to the external world, to how things work and how can they be improved, is the basis of innovation and a desirable attitude for all managers. Intelligence without a constant disposition to improve practical things may become a useless asset.

The notes on kitchen were written by Leonardo for his own use, during his service as advisor to Luigi Sforza, the head of a prominent aristocratic family of Florence’s Renaissance. They include recipes, design of devices to improve cookery, recommendations on the etiquette at the table and more. For example, Leonardo is attributed to have introduced the use of napkins, as recorded in one of his notes: “An alternative to dirty table clothes” –apparently, guests used to clean themselves with the same tablecloth.   

I include some of the notes that caught my attention, though the whole book is recommendable and entertaining.

On new devices for the Kitchen

Leonardo’s notes of to-do-things and new objects to be designed, combined with his characteristic drawings, raise reader’s affection and admiration. In one of the notes, “the new machines that I have yet to design for my kitchens”, he announces his intention to develop different devices “to pluck ducks, cut pigs into small cubes, knead bread, grind meat and press sheep”. Another note deals with one of the first accounts of how freezing preserves food. He tells about a person called Leoni Buillarotti who every year took hundreds of frogs to Lake Trasimeno before it froze and then cut pieces of the ice with the frogs inside and kept them in a cold place. According to Leonardo, the frog’s legs cooked by Buillarotti were one of the most demanded exquisite delicacies of the time.

On how to seat people at the table

One of the book’s most amazing pieces is the note on how to seat murderers at the table: “If there is a murderer invited for lunch, it is most decent that he takes the next seat to he who will become the target of his craft (on his right or left, depending on the method that the murderer uses). This way, the murder won’t interrupt the ongoing conversation at the table”. It seems that luncheons were preferred occasions for murdering those days in Firenze, given the number of notes devoted by Leonardo on how to clean blood from a tablecloth, or how poison tasters should proceed. 

On manners at lunch

A really hilarious note is the one describing “indecent behaviors at my Master’s table”:

–    “Nobody should seat on the table, nor show his back to the table, nor on the lap of another guest”.
–    “Nobody should take food from another’s guest plate, unless he first asks for permission”.
–    “Nobody should clean his knife with his neighbor’s clothes”.
–    “Nobody should take food from the table and put it in his pocket for later consumption”.
–    “Nobody should pinch or beat his table neighbor”.

The list of recommendations continues. Indeed, a note that could be used in toast if you look to provoke laughter from your audience 

Had Leonardo lived in our days, I am sure he would have become an active blogger though I wonder whether he would have developed his own software to write backwards.

(*) I take the Spanish edition of the book “Notas de cocina de Leonardo Da Vinci”, Ediciones Temas de Hoy, Madrid 1996.