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IlCigno — an aviation vision of da Vinci

5 May 2014

Il Cigno — an aviation vision of da Vinci

Il Cigno an interpretation of da Vinci — photo by Joseph May

Il Cigno (The Swan) in the main entry lobby of the Museum of Flight — photo by Joseph May

Who in the Europe or the Americas has not heard of Leonardo da Vinci? We do not usually use his full name, referring to him as da Vinci or simply as Leonardo such is his fame and impact. I recall clearly a visit to Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry to see a da Vinci exhibit and that is where I saw — only inches away — one of his notebooks open to a pair of pages. I often use a fountain pen when writing and I could see in his writing, using a quill pen, where the nib was pressed in places with more force than others — a physical sensation not experienced with a conventional ball point pen. Tantalizingly, my feeling witnessing the man’s connection with his left hand and his intelligence can only be described as visceral. And what intelligence he committed to paper with his quill pen and ink (not to mention his art)!

Il Cigno an interpretation of da Vinci — photo by Joseph May

Il Cigno’s avian design influence is apparent as is Leonardo’s familiarity of mechanics — photo by Joseph May

Il Cigno an interpretation of da Vinci — photo by Joseph May

Il Cigno’s pilot would have been suspended from a keel, using legs and arms to pump a wing flapping mechanism, and twisting his body to control the tail — photo by Joseph May

One of Leonardo’s ideas on manned flight has been brought to near life by the Museum of Flight with their  in interpretation of his sketches. Dating from 1400, these sketches weren’t prototypical, rather part of his thinking process committed to paper and so Il Cigno (The Swan) as seen on the lobby of the  Museum of Flight is an interpretation. Birdlike in design, with regard to the wing as well as tailplane outline, it is a human powered design. The pilot pulls with arms and legs through a system of rope and pulleys, air resistance is the restorative force bring returning the wings to level, and the tailplane is maneuvered with the pilot’s body movements. According to the museum’s Il Cigno webpage the wood and rawhide construction has an empty weight of 160 pounds/72.6kg  and a wingspan of 31 feet/9.55m —  the wing area is 160 square feet/14.7 square meters. Il Cigno has not been tested in flight, of course, but it illustrates humanity’s longing for flight goes well back from 19th and 20th Centuries.

Il Cigno an interpretation of da Vinci — photo by Joseph May

Rear detail of Il Cigno illustrating the pulleys and rope mechanics controlling the tail — photo by Joseph May

Il Cigno an interpretation of da Vinci — photo by Joseph May

Il Cigno’s tail which is heavily influenced by avian design and structure — photo by Joseph May





4 Comments leave one →
  1. 5 May 2014 05:29

    Joe: Many thanks for your report on this exhibit – and others – at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. Aviators around the world are familiar with da Vinci’s prescient “Swan” design and others that have actually become elements of latter-day flying machines. In this case, one is reminded of the very successful Rogallo wing still used by hang-gliding enthusiasts!

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      5 May 2014 19:38


      Excellent observations and I did not make the connection with the Rogallo wing, thanks for that!

      I was at Hong Kong International and saw many B-747 aircraft under taxi or landing or taking off — nice to see that 🙂


  2. 7 May 2014 08:05

    Joe…I’m quite impressed with your analysis, observation,& critique of good Art! It had been a while since I’d opened my DaVinci anthology (which anymore seems like a 25 lb. coffee table sized book requiring a crane to lift! :-) be inspired once again in the man’s genius..and to look specifically at that flight drawing …it is incredibly easy to stand in awe of the man’s control of his art and thought processes.

    Also interesting Joe, were your comments comparing the elegance of the pen as an art tool. vs. a ball point pen! :-).. Ironically, I happened to have PBS Evening News on last night, and watched a feature about the fact that teaching cursive writing in schools in the very near future will be history. It already is in many places in this country.

    My cynicism quotient took a very high spike after watching it….sorry. Nobody seems to even have enough time to write anymore. Its my opinion, (now it’s IMHO!) that kindles and hand-held telephones with their “brains&apps” are robbing our young of some valuable opportunities and a lot of sensitivities that will probably be gone forever; diluted down to whatever pixels are allowed on twitter, or even on wikipedia…….scanned, ‘stored’ and/or forgotten.

    Its a tragedy even now , to witnessi the lack of spelling and grammar throughout the web..especially among the “socials” and the media. It seems like “glorified citizen’s band radio!”

    One other thought…computers do have their place. With the speed of light, it’s probably been done already…but if not, it _would_ be interesting to digitize either Leonado’s drawing or even this beautifully crafted model; to explore further how it would look and operate in motion. That would be a viable use for a computer!

    OK…I’m done!! 🙂 …”nuf” ranting!. I wish “them” all the luck and best! 🙂 etc!! Anyway!…..for me, Calligraphy, was a fun class at Art college in 1847!…so I’ll get back to my brushes, paint and morse code!

    Great piece, Joe…thanks!

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      8 May 2014 18:23

      Very cool, David 🙂 If you haven’t tried a fountain pen lately you might want to give one a go. I use a fine nib but a medium nib might be more your style. And you can change ink colors almost at will when using what they call an ink cartridge converter — it rinses out with distilled water.

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