One day Leonardo da Vinci’s dad knocked on his door. “Haven’t you finished that shield yet? The guy’s been waiting for it for over two months?”
Leonardo called from deep inside his room. “Just a minute!” Not even his dad had ever entered. It was a wizard’s workshop and contained secrets. “All right! Come in.”
“Ugh!” said his dad, wincing as he walked in. “Stinks like the devil in here. Don’t you smell…..?”
And then he let go a howl of fear. “What is THAT?” His eyes were fixed on a strange monster wriggling in a corner of the room. It looked like no animal on earth—in fact, it looked like a dragon.
“Fine,” said Leonardo, who had been watching his father’s reaction. He walked over to the monster, picked it up, and handed it to his dad. “You can take it now—I see that it works,” he told him.
It was a monster he had painted on the buckler, snarling and threatening, looking so real his father had been frightened. “Incredible!” his dad said, beginning to smile. “How did you make it?”
Leonardo opened the shutters of the only window in the room and let light fill the room. There on his work-table were the bodies and parts of bodies of a dozen animals. “I make my own monsters,” Leonardo explained. “I took the scales from this carp and the wings and teeth from this huge bat and the crest from this rooster and I glued them onto the body of the lizard here. I thought he needed a longer tail too, so I used this snake. When he was all assembled and propped up, I painted him on the shield. Before you came in here I set it up in the half-light to see if you would think it was real, and you did, so I’m satisfied. I hope your friend who ordered the buckler will like it.”
Leonardo was sorry his dragon wasn’t really alive, of course. One day a caretaker working in the Medici gardens found an enormous and strange-looking lizard and brought it to him. “This reminds me of one of your painted dragons,” he told him.
It reminded Leonardo too, and he started thinking how he could spruce up this real dragon a bit–improve on nature. First he made some wings for it, covered them with real scales, and glued them on its back. When the lizard moved the wings wagged. Then he gave the dragon a beard and horns and bigger eyes. He kept it in a box and “used to show it to his friends and frighten the life out of them,” says Vasari, his first biographer.