The Curious Case of Leonardo’s Bicycle is a detective story, a graphic investigation into a true but utterly bizarre mystery that has been gnawing away at great minds since the 1970s – if not the 1490s. It is one man’s obsession to get to the bottom of how a 15th century drawing in one of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbooks came to depict a vehicle not invented until the 19th century.
But, more than that, it’s a testament to comic creator John “Brick” Clark’s determination to publish this amazing work, despite rejections from 14 publishers – because it’s absolutely incredible.
Part history, part mystery, part political exposé, all enthralling, Brick delivers not only the story of the invention of the bicycle as we know it, but also reveals how claims Leonardo da Vinci might have designed one are, almost certainly, an elaborate fraud, perpetuated by those most seeking to profit from the claim, supported by dubious validation by an art “expert” and others, claims and counter claims whirling through academic circles and beyond for decades.
The origin of modern cycling has its roots in 1791, in the gardens of the Palais Royal in Paris, France. when the Comte de Sivrac was allegedly spotted riding a rigid two-wheeled and utterly impractical contraption called a célérifère. (It is now thought that the two-wheeled célérifère never existed, although there were four-wheelers, and it was instead a misinterpretation by the well-known French journalist Louis Baudry de Saunier in 1891).
Brick convincingly outlines the true history of the modern bicycle in the work of German inventor Baron Karl von Drais, a civil servant to the Grand Duke of Baden in Germany. As Brick explains, drawing (no pun intended) on circumstantial evidence first revealed by Hans-Erhard Lessing, Drais’s biographer, he invented his his Laufmaschine (German for “running machine”) in 1817 and patented in 1818, later called the Draisine in English, or draisienne in French by the press.
His invention came about in part in response to the starvation and death of horses caused by crop failure in 1816, the “Year Without a Summer”, following the volcanic eruption of Tambora in 1815, which plunged the planet into climate chaos.
Drais patented this design in 1818, the first commercially successful two-wheeled, steerable, human-propelled machine, commonly called a velocipede, and nicknamed hobby-horse or dandy horse, initially manufactured in Germany and France.
As soon as Brick had brilliantly outlined this real history, particularly the devastating impact of Tambora never mentioned in my history lessons at school, I was already hooked by this fascinating tale. But as he then began to delve into the murky history of claims Leonardo da Vinci, or one of his students, had pencilled a bicycle design in what’s today known as the Codex Atlanticus – a claim vigorously maintained by followers of Prof. Augusto Marinoni, a lexicographer and philologist – I was utterly hooked.
With great precision and consummate artistry, born of much research, Brick skilfully picks apart these claims, along the way shining a light on the kind of fakery and nonsense the internet is today crammed with, magnified by the kind of belief systems in the utterly idiotic social media in particular has exacerbated in recent years.
Rightly describing The Curious Case of Leonardo’s Bicycle as a “definitive, thoroughly adulterated and equally wild case history that wends a twisting path through academic mendacity, state terrorism, Vatican corruption, a democratic uprising” Brick identifies the main players in an ongoing and, some would argue, bizarre feud, points accusatory fingers and uncovers why it profits the multinational art industry to feed and nurture this crazy controversy.
I sincerely hope that this astonishing graphic novel will finally drive a nail into the coffin of “Leonardo’s bicycle”, because it certainly deserves to. Brick not only deserves much credit for this disarmingly told tale, delivered with humour and crammed with page-turning revelation; as a determined comic creator, he also rightly must be afforded acclaim for bringing The Curious Case of Leonardo’s Bicycle to book, flying in the face of so many publishers who dismissed his pitch, who praised the work but didn’t commission it, because it didn’t fit their list.
Their loss. Our considerable gain. Let’s ensure Brick gains too, by buying a copy!
• The Curious Case of Leonardo’s Bicycle is available as a Limited Edition Monograph, 259 pages, B&W/colour cover for £20, Signed & numbered. Order from his BookSHOP – the only way to buy this incredible graphic novel, unless you live in Nottingham – in which case, contact him via his web site to find out how to buy a copy direct
The history of the bicycle is so fraught with unknowns and confusion that a yearly Bicycle History conference is held in attempt to clarify these details. Some progress has been made and, this timeline represents agreed key points. The necessity of hosting such a re-evaluation of historical influence is demonstrative of the changing influences on the bicycle and its intertwining nature with the culture and society of its temporal and spatial context