Apr 152015


Today is the birthday (1452) of Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, Italian Renaissance polymath— painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. Whilst I admire the man immensely, much of what is thought, and taught, about him seems overblown. For example, art historian Helen Gardner, says that “his mind and personality seem to us superhuman, the man himself mysterious and remote.” Superhuman? Really? Was he a better painter than Michelangelo? What do such comparisons tell us? Of course he was great, brilliant. But is the Mona Lisa the “best painting” of all time? To visit the Louvre you’d think so given that the room where it is displayed is mobbed all day whilst rooms wallpapered with Rembrandts or Botticellis are empty. I think of this phenomenon as a semi-unthinking herd mentality (which da Vinci himself despised). Was Einstein smarter then Newton or Darwin? Such questions are pointless. What I want to do here Is celebrate the genius of da Vinci rather than worship him as a supreme being.

Born out of wedlock to a notary, Piero da Vinci, and a peasant woman, Caterina, in Vinci in the region of Florence, Leonardo was educated in the studio of the renowned Florentine painter Verrocchio. Much of his earlier working life was spent in the service of Ludovico il Moro in Milan. He later worked in Rome, Bologna and Venice, and he spent his last years in France at the home awarded him by Francis I where he died.


Leonardo was, and is, renowned primarily as a painter. Works such as Mona Lisa and the Last Supper are instantly recognizable – perhaps to their detriment. Does anyone really look at them? Leonardo’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man is also regarded as a cultural icon, being reproduced on items as varied as the euro coin, textbooks, and T-shirts. Perhaps fifteen of his paintings have survived, the small number because of his constant, and frequently disastrous, experimentation with new techniques, and his chronic procrastination. Nevertheless, these few works, together with his notebooks, which contain drawings, scientific diagrams, and his thoughts on the nature of painting, have made a major contribution to later generations of artists.


Leonardo is revered for his technological ingenuity. He conceptualized flying machines, an armored vehicle, concentrated solar power, an adding machine, and the double ship’s hull, also outlining a rudimentary theory of plate tectonics. Relatively few of his designs were constructed or were even feasible during his lifetime, but some of his smaller inventions, such as an automated bobbin winder and a machine for testing the tensile strength of wire, entered the world of manufacturing. He made substantial discoveries in anatomy, civil engineering, optics, and hydrodynamics, but he did not publish his findings and they had no direct influence on later science.


In 1482 Leonardo, who according to Vasari was a most talented musician, created a silver lyre in the shape of a horse’s head. Lorenzo de’ Medici sent Leonardo to Milan, bearing the lyre as a gift, to secure peace with Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. At this time Leonardo wrote an often-quoted letter describing the many marvelous and diverse things that he could achieve in the field of engineering and informing Ludovico that he could also paint. (Worth a smiley !)

Here is a collection of images and personal quotes that, to my mind, epitomizes the man:


There are three classes of people: those who see, those who see when they are shown, those who do not see.


I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough, we must do.


Art is never finished, only abandoned.


Why does the eye see a thing more clearly in dreams than the imagination when awake?


Just as food eaten without appetite is a tedious nourishment, so does study without zeal damage the memory by not assimilating what it absorbs.


Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master.


Anyone who conducts an argument by appealing to authority is not using his intelligence; he is just using his memory.


I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.


The function of muscle is to pull and not to push, except in the case of the genitals and the tongue.


Man and animals are in reality vehicles and conduits of food, tombs of animals, hostels of Death, coverings that consume, deriving life by the death of others.

For today’s recipe I have chosen a 15th century Florentine dish, torta d’agli taken from Libro de arte coquinaria by Maestro Martino de Como. It is more or less a quiche heavily laden with garlic. Here is the original:

Torta d‘agli

Toy li agli e mondali e lessali; quando sono cocti metili a moglio in aqua freda e poy pistali e metili zafarano e formazo assay che sia fresco e lardo batuto e specie dolze e forte distempera con ova e mitili ova passa e poy fa la torta.

[Take the garlic cloves, and peel them and boil them; when they are cooked, put them to soak in cold water, and then pound them and add saffron and plenty of cheese, which should be fresh, and chopped pork fat, and sweet and strong spices, and moisten with eggs, and add raisins, and then make the torta.]


Here is my interpretation:

© Garlic Torta

Take the garlic cloves, and peel them and boil them; when they are cooked, put them to soak in cold water, and then pound them and add saffron and plenty of cheese, which should be fresh, and chopped pork fat, and sweet and strong spices, and moisten with eggs, and add raisins, and then make the torte.

Nowadays garlic and broccoli is more typical than just plain garlic which is a bit pungent for modern tastes, although the boiling reduces this. I would start by preheating the oven to 400°F. Coat the inside of a quiche dish with pork fat (or olive oil), line it with pastry, and set aside in a cool place.

Peel a whole head of garlic and parboil the cloves for about 10 minutes. Mash and chop them as fine as possible with a ¼ teaspoon of powdered garlic and other spices of your choice – I would use allspice and cloves, powdered (maybe a teaspoon each). Mix this together with 3 beaten eggs, 6 ounces of ricotta, and 6 ounces of fresh farmer’s cheese. Toss in a handful of raisins and ¼ cup of bacon fat well chopped. Mix well and fill the pie shell.

Bake for 45-60 minutes testing periodically to be sure the filling is set – firm but not dry – and the top is nicely browned. Serve in slices straight from the dish.

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