The image of the bicycle

I just returned from a bike tour in Italy (wonderful!), and was struck by the way the image of the bicycle is used. One of the places we visited was Vinci, birthplace of Leonardo, and we visited the museum there.


It’s difficult to overstate Leonard’s contributions to the field of engineering; he sketched hundreds of different designs, some with immediate practical use, others realized well after his death, and others, like his helicopter, more fanciful than realistic.

One thing he never sketched was a bicycle. The first velocipede would not appear for another three centuries. Yet, perhaps the #1 t-shirt sold in tourist shops in Tuscany is one of these:

T-shirt depicting apocryphal sketch of bicycle allegedly done by Leonardo

This sketch is a known fake from the late 20th century; Leonardo had nothing to do with it. Yet it sells seemingly as well as Vitruvian Man, an actually important sketch actually done by Leonardo, and certainly far more than any other Leonardo t-shirts.

I think this occurs because the bicycle is relatable and personal. Everyone (almost) has ridden one, and has had the personal experience of cycling through their neighborhood or town. Often that was their first experience of beginning to explore the world on their own. And those experiences reflect cultural backgrounds, community norms about travel through public space, and the differing nature of the places we inhabit.

I think the reason tourists buy the shirt is that they like the idea that Leonardo is connected to those personal experiences of travel. The bicycle is not an abstract object like a machine for raising water or grinding corn; it’s part of your life.

That’s why I try to investigate what the bicycle means in different communities. I think those shared experiences can help us develop shared understanding across cultural gaps.

Scroll to Top