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A prototype for a refrigerator designed by Leonardo da Vinci (image via Metropolitan City of Florence)

When Leonardo da Vinci wasn’t painting portraits of medieval Italy’s nobility, he was figuring out how to keep their drinks cold. According to the BBC, a prototype based on his design for a cooling machine — the earliest known attempt at refrigeration — has gone on display in Milan.

Leonardo scholar Alessandro Vezzosi said the artist invented the machine around 1492, when he was at the court of the Sforzas in Milan. His concept drawing depicts a sophisticated system of bellows that pump air into three leather chambers. These push the air briskly through 18 spouts into a central vacuum that holds the container to be cooled.

Drawings detailing the cold machine (image via Firenze Today) (click to enlarge)

To a modern eye, Leonardo’s device seems cumbersome — so much space for so little refrigeration. But we live in a world populated by a dazzling array of high-tech refrigerators and freezers; we stuff them with shopping carts full of food items that don’t even need to stay cold. In the artist’s day, there were only passive methods of cooling (natural ventilation, underground storage), and the machine would have been remarkable.

It’s possible that Leonardo built it during his lifetime. Vezzosi explained that since the artist also designed special water fountains for lavish banquets, “there’s no reason to rule out the possibility that this machine was also built in his laboratory.” It might have cooled anything from punch to sorbet (gelato was only invented a few decades later).

Sadly, in the 19th century, the French emperor Napoleon stole Leonardo’s design from the Biblioteca Ambrosiana. It was almost forgotten at the Institut de France until recently, when Vezzosi rediscovered it and decided to actually build the thing. The Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci, where he serves as director, along with the ice cream company Sammontana, provided the funding to do so. It’s now on display at the Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia “Leonardo da Vinci” through late October.

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...