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
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."