ecurs this year the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452 and died on May 2, 1519. Almost everything was written about him. It seems that no scholar ever took an interest in Leonardo as a chess player: yet “the Italian genius” may have been one of the architects of the change in the movement of the pieces that occurred between the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth century.

It must be said, immediately, that it is not known when he learned the game of chess: probably in Florence when around 1475 he began attending the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent, where chess was widely practiced.

“Pope Leone used to resign the game when he was inferior; this shows his ability, since he saw long before what was to happen; and when he realized that his situation was desperate, following the response of Hippocrates who said there was no remedy. for the desperate, he surrendered and confessed himself won. “

If he did not learn to play as a boy and if he did not even learn at the court of the Magnifico, Leonardo certainly learned the game when in 1482 he presented himself to Ludovico il Moro and remained at his court in Milan. We can therefore say that if Leonardo still did not know how to play chess he certainly learned in Milan; in a document of the late fifteenth century we read that

“Leonardo played chess against the French Ambassador adopting a new tactic, the sacrifice of the Queen Bishop’s pawn”

(in the opening, move by two steps of the Queen’s Bishop Pawn): in practice an example, perhaps the first, of the opening that will then be known as “Queen’ gambit (accepted)”; unfortunately there are no other details, neither on the ambassador’s name nor on when the game was played.

Leonardo, as we know, was also an innovator: he probably had already heard of the novelties brought into the game, above all relating to the movement of the Queen and the Bishop who would have been definitively adopted in a few years later.

It can therefore be assumed that he in turn thought of a change of improvement and that he himself “conceived” the castling movement (which at the time had not yet been called that).

It can be deduced from the fact that in the “Sheets of Windsor” dated between 1484 and 1487 there is the design of a chess “puzzle” (sheet 12692r). And as Malvaldi writes, “Design for Leonardo’s is pure intellectual expression, an abstraction capable of representing a theory. / … / his drawings serve to show how things work, not what they look like. “

The solution of Leonardo’s chess “rebus” is “I will take up”, with the idea of ​​carrying out the particular movement of King and Tower in a single move and not in two as it was at the time, when to remove the King from the center of the chessboard and bringing the Tower into play there was the possibility of a combination of two successive moves, as reported by the Spaniard Lucena in his text of 1496 or 1497: first the Tower moved, then the next mossas the King had the power to bypass it by moving of two boxes, thus dealing with two moves and not one as it happens today, with what we can define as ‘modern’ castling.

Probably however the idea of ​​Leonardo anticipated the times too much for the Milanese court, accustomed to the classic game of the epoch, and so it didn’t find great reply. But things changed when, after fleeing from Milan, Leonardo took refuge together at the court of Isabella d’Este in Mantua: from documents preserved in the Lombard Historical Archive it is known that in Mantua Leonardo and Luca Pacioli stayed between 1499 and 1503. Leonardo was welcomed because Isabella hoped she would do the portrait, Pacioli probably as his friend, forced to find a way to repay him … playing chess. In fact, the court of Isabella was at the time the European chess fulcrum, the queen herself was a great chess lover: she welcomed and hosted the players, she brought the best “professionals” from Spain to play with and take lessons and she had the chess pieces carved by the Masters Campionesi (sometimes “pulling on the price”, as shown by some letters we have received). Here Leonardo and Pacioli found a very intense and rich “chess atmosphere”.

Luca Pacioli, who had with him his collection of ‘partiti’, thought that a way to repay him with Isabella could be to make a booklet for him to carry out with the express purpose of paying homage to her: thus the collection soon turned into the famous “De Ludo Scachorum”.

It was necessary, however, to redo the diagrams and here was the first intervention for the realization of the book by Leonardo, who also designed new-concept pieces, much lighter and more artistic than those then in vogue. We can see that for their realization it would have been necessary to use a lathe, a newly conceived machine (the first specimens dated back to about 40 years before) and that Leonardo had designed, but it was not yet ready for the purpose. Once again Leonardo anticipated (too much) the time …

The pieces were proportioned according to the golden ratio; they refer, for the Pawn, to known forms, for the Queen, to a precise form already used by Leonardo, in the drawing of a source (in studies and drawings of fountains, Codex Atlanticus, foll. 293r-be 212r-a. And cs 1497-1500, Ms. I of Madrid), for the figures of Bishop, Knight, Rook and King, and for their overall refined slenderness, to the decorations of the Domus Aurea, Candelabra and Grottesche, discovered at the end of the 1400s and notes to the Master.

Gli scacchi di Leonardo

Of the book, however, there was soon lose trace and it was thought that it had been lost, until it was accidentally found a few days before Christmas 2006 at the Library of the Palazzo Coronini Cronberg Foundation in Gorizia. Almost half a millennium after it was created!

The analyzes on the rediscovered manuscript showed that Leonardo not only designed the newly conceived pieces, but also created many of the “diagrams” with the various positions

(it is clear from the fact that they are drawn with the left hand and that the chessboards are made without use of the ruler). Regarding the aspect of the “live” game, we must return to the puzzle in the “Windsor Sheets”.

Since the court of Isabella already played with the new rules brought by the “professionals” who frequented it, aimed at speeding up the game (Queen and Bishop had in fact extended their movement, the Bishop being able to move along the entire diagonal, the Queen in all directions)

and given that, as we have said, up until that moment what we now call castling was carried out with two consecutive moves, we can think that Leonardo proposed the innovation, that is the new move, defined castling, carried out in one fell swoop, which he assumed already about fifteen years earlier. We can believe that the idea pleased and was immediately accepted, because as we said, it responded in order to speed up the game, but above all because it constituted a kind of ‘antidote’ to the new power assumed by the Queen. Obviously, once the idea was accepted at the court of Isabella, then the spread of castling (in a move) across Europe by the “professionals” occurred accordingly.

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