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1434: The Year A Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed To Italy and Ignited The Renaissance, by Gavin Menzies

July 29, 2008
The Globe and Mail

Leonardo da Vinci's drawings of machines are uncannily similar to Chinese originals and were undoubtedly derived from them, a British amateur historian says in a new book. Gavin Menzies sparked headlines across the globe in 2002 with the claim that Chinese sailors reached North America 70 years before Christopher Columbus.

Now he says a Chinese fleet brought encyclopedias of technology undiscovered by the West to Italy in 1434, laying the foundation for the engineering marvels such as flying machines later drawn by Italian polymath Leonardo. "Everything known to the Chinese by the year 1430 was brought to Venice," Mr. Menzies, a retired Royal Navy submarine commander, said in an interview at his north London home.

From Venice, a Chinese ambassador went to Florence and presented the material to Pope Eugenius IV, he said. "I argue in the book that this was the spark that really ignited the renaissance and that Leonardo and (Italian astronomer) Galileo built on what was brought to them by the Chinese. Leonardo basically redrew everything in three dimensions, which made a vast improvement."

If accepted, the claim would force an "agonizing reappraisal of the Eurocentric view of history," Mr. Menzies says in his book 1434: The Year A Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed To Italy and Ignited The Renaissance. The urbane 70-year-old sold more than a million copies of his first book, 1421, which argued that Chinese sailors mapped the world in the early 1400s shortly before abandoning global seafaring.

His theories are dismissed as nonsense by many academics Mr. Menzies said Chinese fleets reached Australia and New Zealand as well as North America before European explorers but have gained an international following among readers. "This whole fantasy about Europe discovering the world is just nonsense," he said.

In his latest book published in the United States in June and this month in Britain Mr. Menzies said four ships from the same Chinese expeditions reached Venice, bringing with them world maps, astronomical charts and encyclopedias far in advance of anything available in Europe at the time.

He said Leonardo's designs for machines can be traced back to this transfer of Chinese knowledge. Leonardo, born in 1452, is perhaps best known for his enigmatic Mona Lisa, a portrait of a woman in Paris's Louvre Museum, but he also left journals filled with intricate engineering and anatomical illustrations. Mr. Menzies said designs for gears, waterwheels and other devices contained in Chinese encyclopedias reached Leonardo after being copied and modified by his Italian antecedents, Taccola and Francesco di Giorgio.

To support his argument, Mr. Menzies publishes drawings of siege weapons, mills and pumps from a 1313 Chinese agricultural treatise, the Nung Shu, and from other pre-1430 Chinese books, next to apparently similar illustrations by Leonardo, Di Giorgio and Taccola. "By comparing Leonardo's drawings with the Nung Shu, we have verified that each element of a machine superbly illustrated by Leonardo had previously been illustrated by the Chinese in a much simpler manual," Mr. Menzies writes.

"It's very suggestive, very interesting, but the hard work remains to be done," said Martin Kemp, Professor of the History of Art at Oxford University and author of books on Leonardo. "He (Mr. Menzies) says something is a copy just because they look similar. He says two things are almost identical when they are not," Mr. Kemp said.

"It's not strong on historical method," he added. But Mr. Kemp said he would look out for any signs that Leonardo had access to Chinese material, directly or indirectly, when studying his manuscripts in future. "I will keep my eye open, without thinking it is going to turn Leonardo studies or any studies of 15th century technology upside down."

Mr. Kemp said the source of the claimed Chinese influence was a separate issue. "There is a whole series of questions a historian would ask about mediaeval technology, about Islamic technology, about transmission across trade routes, the Silk Route in particular. It's a terrifically complicated area and having a Chinese person in Florence in 1434 ends up giving that person a hell of a lot of work to do."

Mr. Menzies based his positioni that a Chinese ambassador went to Florence on a copy of a letter dated 1474 by Italian mathematician Toscanelli found among Columbus's papers. He publishes a translation from the letter reading: "In the days of Pope Eugenius, there came a Chinese ambassador to him," although this is not explicit in the original Latin text.

"It's drivel," said Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, a British expert on maritime exploration who is a professor of history at Tufts University in the United States and at Queen Mary College, University of London. "No reputable scholar would think that there is any reason to suppose that the person referred to by Toscanelli was Chinese."

Geoff Wade, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore's Asia Research Institute, said Mr. Menzies's book and theories should be reclassified as historical fiction. "Certainly Chinese ideas came to Europe and European ideas went to Iran and onwards," Mr.Wade said in a telephone interview. "But the premise of the book that there was a Chinese fleet in 1434 which went to Italy is completely without any substance. There is absolutely no Chinese evidence for it."

Mr. Menzies brushes off the criticism, pointing to shelves of files in the rooms of his basement study filled with material that he said supports his theories, much contributed by readers of his books and associated Web sites. "I say the claim that critics make that there is no evidence is absolute rubbish. There is stacks and stacks of evidence. It's not me that's the fantasist, it's the historians who persist in this complete rubbish which is currently taught as history."

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