Vol.1 / Issue 3


Involuntary Muscular Action as an
Untapped Energy Source:
An Invention by Leonardo da Vinci and Marcel Duchamp

By Donald Shambroom


(The following example of Marcel Duchamp's encounter with the mind of Leonardo da Vinci is exerpted from a longer essay. Duchamp discovered Leonardo's anatomical writings and drawings, through photogravure reproductions, in the Bibliothèque Sainte Géneviève in Paris, first as a curious visitor in 1910, then as a professional librarian with a great deal of spare time, in 1913-14.)

Click to enlarge
Note by Leonardo da Vinci, from: Charles O'Malley and J. B. Saunders (eds.), Leonardo on the Human Body, Dover: New York, 1982, p.296.

Leonardo da Vinci saw the human body as a machine, with the muscles as tiny engines operating the winches and pulleys of the tendons. The bones were levers, or miniature cranes, controlled by the network of nerves from the command center of the brain. But there was a realm within the mechanics of the body that Leonardo could not see, either with the careful dissection of a human corpse, or a lengthy reflection on the inner workings of his own body. It was like a clearing that a hiker in the woods might come upon at twilight, when the sun has almost disappeared. Leonardo made a list, writing in reverse as he always did, to help stake out this shrouded terrain:

The cause of breathing.
The cause of the movement of the heart.
The cause of vomiting.
The cause of the decent of food into the stomach.
The cause of emptying the intestines.
The cause of the movement of superfluous matter through the intestines.
The cause of swallowing.
The cause of coughing.
The cause of yawning.
The cause of sneezing.
The cause of numbness of various limbs.
The cause of loss of sensation in any limb.
The cause of the tickling sensation.
The cause of sensuality and other necessities of the body.
The cause of urination.
And so of all the natural actions of the body

Leonardo issued this list to himself, as a set of research directives and proposed chapter headings. He set out to find the cause, and with it the purpose, of these bodily functions that seem to come out of nowhere, or fade away into no place, just out of reach, or barely within reach, of any rational decision or control. They are both voluntary and involuntary. Leonardo intended to produce a book on this subject as part of a much larger treatise on human anatomy.

This list forms a block of text, twice as tall as it is wide, holding down the left half of a manuscript page. Facing it directly opposite, with its nose pressed up against the phrase The cause of numbness of various limbs, is the forceful profile of a man with the features of a Roman emperor. A simple S-shaped line, slanting downward, defines his sneering mouth from the side. He is disdainful, proud, and bald. In fact he is more than bald. Leonardo has pealed off a layer of skin from his cranium to display the network of vessels that supply blood to the scalp, producing an eerie mixture of portraiture and vivisection, which is found with unnerving frequency among Leonardo's anatomical drawings.

This page, half writing, half drawing, appears as the second plate in the Windsor Anatomy, Folio B. It must have grabbed Marcel Duchamp's attention at once during his initial perusal of this volume in the in the Bibliothèque Sainte Géneviève in 1910. It is one of Leonardo's clearest and most elegant graphic designs. Yet the page has about it an air of irony, and of accident, as if Leonardo, needing to record his growing mental list of semi-involuntary bodily functions, grabbed the first available sheet, and started his cascade of causes of..., running it to within a hair's breadth of the Roman profile he had previously placed there. Accidental or not, there is no way to overlook this centurion's encounter with the rectangle of text, and his determination never to lose control of a sneeze, or cough in an untimely manner, or pee in his pants. Of course the old Roman is deluded. In Leonardo's drawing he has been beheaded and dissected.

Duchamp found this page, and it stuck in his mind. It is here that he discovered common ground with Leonardo, the great Renaissance master.

Within the collection of manuscript pages reproduced in Folio B, Leonardo returns twice again to the project of his list, to add to it, and amend it: Where do tears come from? And dreaming? And anger when it works in the body? Fear likewise? Then he asks a peculiar question: Why does a thunderbolt kill a man and not wound him? And why, if this man blew his nose, would he not die? He follows in the next line with a simple directive: Write what the soul is.

Duchamp took notes on Leonardo's notebooks, and every thing else he read, but never in the library, with the books close at hand. He waited until he returned to his studio. Then he jotted down thoughts on random scraps torn from sheets of graph paper, or gas bills, or wedding announcements. This became a very deliberate procedure. It allowed a 'gap', or a process of disorganization and reinvention, to intervene between Duchamp and his source material. He was learning to turn his sloppiness as a student into an artistic practice. It wasn't long before he went to work on Leonardo's list, labeled 'An Enumeration of the Vital Functions of the Human Body' in the library's transcription and translation. Duchamp for once took a full sheet of stationary, and transformed Leonardo's unrealized proposal for an anatomy book into a plan for a modern machine. Its details and functions are appropriate to the twentieth century, but its late-fifteenth century roots, coming straight out of Folio B, are clearly showing. Duchamp was beginning to operate as an artist caught in the midst of a scientific triangle, whose corners were occupied by Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, and Rube Goldberg. Here is his proposal, which reads like the first page of a patent application:

A transformer designed to utilize the slight, wasted energies such as:
the excess of pressure on an electrical switch.
the exhalation of tobacco smoke
the growth of a head of hair, of other body hair and of the nails.
the fall of urine and excrement.
movements of fear, astonishment, boredom, anger.
dropping of tears.
demonstrative gestures of hands, feet, nervous tics.
forbidding glances.
falling over with surprise.
stretching, yawning, sneezing.
ordinary spitting of blood.
unruly hair, cowlicks.
the sound of nose-blowing, snoring.
whistling, singing.
sighs, etc. . . .

At first the relationship between Leonardo's lists and Duchamp's 'Transformer' appears somewhat hazy. But a simple book-keeping exercise, using Leonardo's second attempt at an enumeration of voluntary/involuntary bodily functions, found on page 21 of the Windsor Anatomy, Folio B, will make the connection clearer. (I have inserted non-italicized letters into Leonardo's text.):


Figure to show how catarrh is caused.
a) Tears.
b) Sneezing.
c) Yawning.
d) Anger when it works on the body.
e) Fear likewise.
Where poison injures.
Describe the nature of all the limbs.
Why the thunderbolt kills a man and does not wound him, and if f) the man blew his nose he would not die. Because it hurts the lungs.
Write what the soul is.
Of the nature of necessity which makes vital and actual instruments of suitable and necessary shapes and positions.
How necessity is the companion of nature.
Figure to show g) from whence comes the semen.
h) Whence the urine.
Whence the milk.
How nourishment proceeds to distribute itself through the veins.
Whence comes intoxication.
i) Whence vomiting.
Whence gravel and stone.
Whence colic.
Whence dreaming....

If we now find the corresponding functions in Duchamp's text, the following list is generated:

by Leonardo

a) Tears.
b) Sneezing
c) Yawning.
d) Anger when it works on the body.
e) Fear likewise.
f) ...and the man blew his nose..
g) ...from whence comes the semen
h) Whence the urine.
i) Whence vomiting.

by Marcel Duchamp

dropping of tears
movements of fear
the sound of nose blowing
the fall of urine

Click to enlarge
Note by Leonardo da Vinci (detail), from: Charles O'Malley and J. B. Saunders (eds.), Leonardo on the Human Body, Dover: New York, 1982, p.296.

In his prospectus Duchamp could not leave the defiant Roman on the right half of Leonardo's first manuscript page unnoticed and unridiculed. He threw this character's lack of hair, and lack of a scalp, back in his face. A vital component of the 'Transformer's' power supply comes from the pressure of growing hair, and the potential energy stored in cowlicks.

Duchamp often turned to these bodily functions, most notably sneezing, urination, and ejaculation, as themes for his art. But he withheld the 'Transformer' note from the compilation he assembled in 1934 in the Green Box. You could say that it was not directly related to the workings of the Large Glass. But there are other divergent notes, such as hallucinatory travelogue of the Jura-Paris road, or the specifications for readymades, or the proposal for a musical sculpture, that found places in the Green Box. These are further removed from the mechanisms of the Bride and the Bachelors than 'Transformer.' Duchamp kept it out for another reason. The note was too close to its source in Leonardo's anatomical notebooks. Duchamp wanted to establish more distance between himself and Leonardo. The secret was not yet sufficiently buried. Only in 1939, when André Breton asked for a contribution to his anthology Humor Noir, did Duchamp give up his 'Transformer' note for publication. There it would be one step removed from the constellation of writings and objects that constitute the 'delay' of the Large Glass, where the true depth of Duchamp's embrace of Leonardo da Vinci lies hidden beneath two plates of shattered glass.


(1) Charles O'Malley and J. B. Saunders, translators and editors, Leonardo on the Human Body (New York: Crown, 1982), p. 296, and Edward MacCurdy, translator and editor, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (New York: George Braziller, 1954), pp. 109-110.

(2) Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson, editors, The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (New York: Da Capo, 1987), pp. 191-192.

(3) MacCurdy, op cit, pp. 132-133.

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