Roots <

Writing so particularly about kites must be my destiny, because in my first childhood memory, it seemed to me that, as I lay in my cradle, a kite came to me and opened my mouth with its tail, and beat the inside of my lips with its tail several times
Leonardo da Vinci
Codex Atlanticus, fol. 186v. Translation: Elizabeth Hughes




Leonardo was the illegitimate son of the notary Ser Piero di Antonio da Vinci (1427–1504) and a farmer’s daughter, Caterina. He spent his childhood in the house of his paternal grandfather Antonio (d. 1464) in the rural area of Vinci, some distance away from the metropolis of Florence. This may have encouraged his personal initiative and ultimately his independent spirit.
Aside from basic religious knowledge and familiarity with the literary classics in the Italian vernacular, the cultural education of the broad merchant and notary class at that time mainly involved a practical mastery of the arithmetic techniques needed for commercial accounting. Families usually owned small libraries of around a dozen books that were passed down through the generations. The typical collection included an edition of the Bible—often in Italian—and other religious works (collections of acts of the saints, confessionals, psalms, and sermons) as well as the vernacular classics of the literary triumvirate of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. An arithmetic book (libro d’abaco) was indispensable for reference and as a textbook for everyday mathematical tasks. Additionally, the head of the family consecutively recorded memorable events and recollections (ricordanze) in a family album. Some family members also tried their hand at writing edifying texts. Leonardo’s half-brother Lorenzo (1480–1531), a wool merchant, wrote two short religious tracts. Most of the works were still handwritten codices. Book printing was still in its infancy when Leonard was young, but this would soon change rapidly, in Italy as elsewhere.


Merchants Knowledge <

Abacus (Suanpan)
 early 1960s

The abacus is one of the oldest existing mechanical aids to calculation worldwide. It arrived in Europe from Mesopotamia in antiquity via trade routes in the Mediterranean, and was so widespread in Italian trade metropoles by the end of the Middle Ages that it gave its name to the primary schools and arithmetic manuals for commercial students (scuole or libri d’abaco)
2 ; 3 ; 4 ). The slide rule with beads was already known earlier in China. The suanpan with its classical division into two parts represents the earlier form of the Japanese soroban. The importance of the abacus gradually declined with the transition to written calculations after the introduction of Indo-Arabic numerals. Today, vanished from most curricula, it is merely a nostalgic symbol of initiation for the first day of school. Yet it is a durable and fail-safe calculator that is very easy to use after a bit of practice and is still used sometimes, particularly at street markets in Asia.



    Prinz, Ina, ed. 2015. Rechnen mit Perlen. Der Abakus und seine Geschichte. Exhibition catalogue Arithmeum, Bonn, 8.11.2014–1.5.2015. Berlin: Nicolai.