ROME - Leonardo da Vinci drew everything from war machines to anatomy sketches. Now it seems he may have also been an early illustrator of the chess puzzle.
Experts say the Renaissance genius, whose interests included painting, mathematics, music, engineering, anatomy and botany, may have illustrated the puzzles in a long-lost chess treatise recently recovered in the library of an aristocratic family in northern Italy.
The manuscript was penned around 1500 by Luca Pacioli, a mathematician and friend of Leonardo, and some experts believe the artist may have drawn the elegant pieces that illustrate the chess puzzles discussed in the treatise.
"The pieces are exceptional for that era," said Franco Rocco, a Milan-based architect and sculptor who studied the illustrations. "Even today they look futuristic."
The treatise, "De Ludo Schaccorum" - Latin for "Of the Game of Chess" - includes more than 100 chess problems that challenge the player to reach checkmate in a certain number of moves. Today such mind-twisters are popular fixtures in newspapers.
The sole copy of the treatise was found in 2006 among 22,000 volumes collected by the Coronini family in their palace in Gorizia, on Italy's border with Slovenia.
"It was like a Holy Grail of chess," said Serenella Ferrari Benedetti, cultural co-ordinator of the foundation that manages the Coronini estate. "We knew it existed but nobody had ever seen it."
The illustrations of the red and black chess pieces were themselves a puzzle. The slender, abstract design was so unusual that Ferrari Benedetti asked Rocco to study the drawings.
After a year of research, Rocco concluded that Pacioli enlisted Leonardo's help to draw the pieces.
Rocco, in a telephone interview, noted that the two men had earlier collaborated in Milan when Leonardo helped illustrate a treatise on proportion while also painting "The Last Supper."
Rocco said the futuristic style of the chess pieces is in sharp contrast with the way other pieces were represented at the time.
Every piece also was proportionally related to each of its parts and to the other pieces, a trademark of Leonardo's art, he said. In addition, some pieces directly recall other works by Leonardo, including a queen similar to a fountain drawn in one of the artist's manuscripts.
Not all the pieces display the same quality and some were drawn with a right hand and others with a left, Rocco said. This indicates that Leonardo, who was left-handed, may have only drawn a few pieces to provide examples, or that he simply suggested the designs to Pacioli, Rocco said.
Alessandro Vezzosi, the director of a museum dedicated to the artist in his hometown of Vinci, said the idea that Leonardo drew the pieces is plausible, but documented proof would be needed.
"We can't say that he drew the pieces. It's a very interesting hypothesis, but it needs to be verified," said Vezzosi, who was not involved in Rocco's research.
Pacioli's manuscript, normally not on public display, was exhibited last summer in Florence and will be briefly shown in Gorizia in June.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 14, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage