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Leonardo's Knots

Caroline Cocciardi
Mona Lisa Knot
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Scott Taylor
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Leonardo da Vinci must be the world’s best loved Renaissance man. Over ten million people visit the Louvre each year and most take a look at the must-see Mona Lisa. But how many people actually look carefully at it? How many people notice the knots?

In Leonardo’s Knots, Caroline Cocciardi has assembled a fabulous collection of, well, Leonardo’s knots. Leonardo incorporated knots throughout his painting, drawing, and sketching. Cocciardi analyzes their practical and aesthetic function and, with the help of mathematician Rob Scharein, analyzes them mathematically. Along the way, she shares some of the stories associated with these knots. 

Sadly, many of these stories are stories of loss. We have four masterful copies of Leonardo’s Leda and the Swan, but in each of them Leda has a different hairstyle; so we have little idea what knots and braids were incorporated in the locks of Leonardo’s Leda.  We no longer have a dress designed by Leonardo for Isabella d’Este, as its thread was “pillaged for the gold embroidery.” The Lost Knots of Oxford are Leonardo knot designs that disappeared from Christ Church, Oxford, perhaps in the 1960s. Rather spectacularly, Cocciardi has offered a million-dollar reward for the return of the Lost Knots. 

To me, the most interesting story of the book is Cocciardi’s analysis of the blue robed Salvator Mundi and the red robed Salvator Mundi. Both paintings are attributed to Leonardo, but there are significant differences between them. Apparently, Cocciardi is the first person to systematically compare the knotwork on the two paintings to the Leonardo’s other knots. She believes that her analysis casts doubt on the authenticity of the blue robed version. It would be interesting to hear the opinion of recognized authorities on Leonardo’s artwork. Unfortunately, in keeping with an unstated theme of the book, the blue robed Salvator Mundi has recently disappeared (Kirkpatrick, David. “A Leonardo made a $450 million-dollar splash. Now there’s no sign of it.” New York Times, March 30, 2019).

Leonardo’s Knots is a joy to look at. Each page is full of color and there are high resolution reproductions of details of many Leonardo paintings and illustrations. Additionally, the book includes dazzling artwork by Rob Scharein highlighting the technical structure of the knots. Unfortunately, as a book to read, Leonardo’s Knots is less successful. The story-telling does not always feel as organized as it should; at times it actually feels like pages are out-of-order. There is also not much of an overarching narrative that connects the different examples. Email correspondence between the author and her sources is sometimes included verbatim. The book seems to be self-published, which is a shame. A good editor would have helped a lot. Nevertheless, I recommend it as an excellent gift for either the knot theorist or the Leonardo aficionado in your life. And I would love for someone to find the lost knots of Oxford. Perhaps this book and its reward will untangle someone’s memory or morals.

Scott Taylor ([email protected]) is a knot theorist who has assembled many models of Leonardo’s devices with his sons.

The table of contents is not available.