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Lost until translation: a book on maths and magic

By da Vinci's mate, you know...

By Lucy Sherriff, 10 Apr 2007

Want to learn how to wash your hands in molten lead? Fancy making an egg dance, or writing appear on rose petals? For such tricky trickery, who would you turn to but the man who taught Leonardo da Vinci his numbers?

After gathering dust for half a millennium, a "magic" text book written by the Franciscan monk Luca Pacioli, De viribus quantitatis, has been translated into English, The Guardian reports.

The text is causing a stir because it is the first known volume containing written instructions on how to perform magic tricks for an audience. It also contains numerical puzzles similar to su doku.

It includes guidance for making an egg appear to walk across a table, for washing your hands in molten lead (tip: make sure your hands are well soaked in very cold well water), and using a plant in the audience to help with card tricks.

The translation of the book has taken eight years and might never have been started but for mathematician David Singmaster, who found a reference to the book in a 19th-century manuscript and looked into its origins.

He told The Guardian that the book is not just the foundation of modern magic, but of number puzzles as well. It also contains instructions on writing in code.

"We don't know why, but this huge thing has been hidden away in the University of Bologna we presume since the time of Pacioli," Singmaster said.

He suggests that, at a time when Europe was persecuting witches, the book may have been an attempt to demystify magic and bring it into the realms of the scientific and comprehensible.

The newly discovered work indicates that Pacioli and da Vinci collaborated on many things. Notes written in the text from Pacioli to da Vinci show there was a real exchange of ideas between them. It also contains previously unknown anecdotes about da Vinci's life.

Pacioli, who lived with da Vinci in Milan, is thought to have helped him with "The Last Supper". He also tutored the genius in maths and geometry. The two also co-produced a book, De Divina Proportione, illustrated by da Vinci. He is best known, however, as the father of modern accountancy, having written the first ever description of the double entry bookkeeping system is his work "The Summa".

The translation is due to be published next year, in time for the book's 500th anniversary. Until then, a copy of the book will be kept at the Conjuring Arts Research Centre in New York, which financed the translation work.

William Kalush, a magician and the founder of the Conjuring Arts Research Centre said: "This book is the first major manual that is primarily concerned with teaching how to perform magic...This book teaches not only the methods but also gives a glimpse into how one might perform them with an eye to entertaining an audience." ®

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