published on 10 September 2020 in energy

A simple and ingenious invention

There are objects so simple and ordinary that we forget their existence when we don’t need them. Their presence is unobtrusive but important because, almost without us noticing it, they improve the quality of our lives. Very often they are humble items, not at all technological, but sometimes their origin is truly amazing. One of these items is the table napkin. Have you ever wondered who invented that square of cloth or paper that accompanies all our meals at home or snacks outdoors? It seems that it was Leonardo da Vinci who came up with the idea of napkins as long ago as 1491, when he was Master of Ceremonies at the Sforza Court in Milan. It was his duty to arrange feasts full of spectacular ideas and special effects. In reality, organising festivities was a secondary occupation because Leonardo presented himself at the Sforza Court mainly as a war machine builder and hydraulic engineer.

Indeed, the curriculum vitae that Leonardo submitted to the attention of Ludovico il Moro, Duke of Milan, (he also invented the CV) states: “In times of peace, I believe I can give as complete satisfaction as any other in the field of architecture, and the construction of both public and private buildings, and in conducting water from one place to another.” That is, he proposed himself to Ludovico il Moro as an architect, as good as any other, and above all as an expert in water channelling. The Duke hired him and Leonardo made a valuable contribution to Milan’s Navigli. Leonardo remained at the Sforza Court for 17 years. Clearly, he was content there.  But there was one thing he really didn’t like: at the table, the ruling class of Milan was really ill-mannered. In fact, during the banquets, they wiped their mouths on their sleeves or on the edges of tablecloths or even worse on the fur of rabbits and dogs tied to the chairs, so that they could be used as living napkins. However, the Tuscan genius came up with an idea: that of giving each diner a piece of personal cloth to wipe his hands and mouth. Leonardo did not just invent the napkin, which was initially called “truccabocca”: he invented a rotating machine for drying washed napkins. In short, Leonardo was also a hygiene genius. The trouble was that at first nobody knew how to use it. Pietro Alemanni, ambassador of Florence, reported that during a gala lunch at the Sforza Court: “No one knew what to do with it. Some sat on it. Others used it to blow their noses. Others threw it around, treating it as a game. Others used it to wrap the food they hid in their pockets. When they had finished eating and the main tablecloth remained just as dirty as before, Maestro Leonardo confided to me that he hoped his invention would take root.”

Yet Leonardo was not discouraged, and he was so convinced of the validity of his simple invention that he explained its use and the tricks to fold it correctly in the Codex Atlanticus, the rich collection of texts and drawings now preserved in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan.

By Andrea Bellati

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