“I Had That Leonardo Da Vinci In My Confessional Box Last Night.”

The Grand Inquisitor was weary. “There are no new sins any more,” he said, filling his tankard with my Oloroso. He obviously knew what he was talking about. Should I tell him? What if he took it out on me?  I was sure he envied me and coveted my land and daughters.  On the other hand, I could always threaten him with disclosure of his other sins. That was the advantage of talking to artists’ models. They got around a bit. No, I’d keep that one for the uncertain future.

“I don’t know, Your Eminence.”  In all the world, there was no one who liked being called, ‘Your Eminence’ like him. “Your Eminence will pardon me if I venture to disagree in particular – though not in spirit. Or, perhaps Your Eminence would care to give me the benefit of his experience and point out the error of my supposition that that which I observed of late was indeed a new sin?”

He paused to investigate the innards of a quail, “Wha’-was-’at? New sin? ’mpossible!” He burped, loudly.

“A certain communicant of mine,” I began – stretching a point, for I was damn sure he was an atheist – “a member of my parish, has constructed a device.”

“That in itself is no sin. Constructing devices has papal approval. It is the type of device that is problematic.”

“It is a new device – that is, one never seen before.”

“That is a problem. New devices can be heretical – for only God creates. Can this… new device be used for war?”

“It can indeed, Your Eminence!”

“Problem solved! I can arrange absolution. Devices of war, being of the devil, are not heretical – they need only be reconsecrated to be acceptable. God knows! We need all the new devices of war we can get!” He began to tear meat from the carcass.

“There is a further problem.”

The Grand Inquisitor was plainly not in the mood, “Problem?” Somehow he managed to scowl as he crammed a huge fistful of venison into his mouth.

“My… um… client… is a man of great capability.” I paused. I could hardly come right out and say whom it was. Of course, the Grand Inquisitor could demand that I named him, but better it did not come to that.  “A year ago, he approached and asked my help with a device he was constructing which he assured me would be of great military use. He wanted me to put certain resources at his disposal to enable the device to work.”

The Grand Inquisitor was suddenly alert, “This wouldn’t be Leonardo Da Vinci you’re talking about, would it?”  It would have been suicidal to deny it. “Well, why don’t you say so? We could have had him for heresy a hundred times if he weren’t so damned useful! What’s he been up to? Flying, is it? Or travelling under water? I’ve heard the stories. They never work, you know. It’s only heresy if it’s right.”

“It is a device that thinks, Your Eminence.”

The Grand Inquisitor was famed for his sense of humour. He laughed. He laughed for some time. “You mean it is the device itself that is the heretic! That would be a novel defence, for sure!”

“Leonardo insists that the machine does not think. I can only go on the evidence of my senses – for I do not claim to understand the device. None the less, it seems to me that it thinks.”

“You don’t understand it? You mean it talks in a foreign language as well?”

“It is a mathematical device, and I do not understand mathematics.”

The Grand Inquisitor counted the points on his fingers, “Mathematics is not heresy – per se. Only multiplication, division and the zero are at all heretical – and Leonardo is licensed to employ them for strictly military purposes. We live in very liberal times.”

“The point being that it is who is doing the multiplying or dividing and to what purpose that determines whether the operation is heretical. Is that not the nub of my problem?”

“So? If it is Leonardo – fine. If not, who?”

“It is more a question of what, Your Eminence.”

“Are you trying to say that this device of his is multiplying and dividing?”

“Oh, that and more – far more!”

“What? Using zeros?”

“Oh far, far more!”

The Grand Inquisitor laughed again, “If I were superstitious – which I’m not – I would be horrified at the devilry that suggests! As I know that what you say is scientifically impossible – I can laugh at your naïvety! Sorry, but he must be pulling your leg.”

“I only tell you what I have seen.”

“And I only tell you that what you see is deceptive. The scientific view is one of reasoning from the self-evident to the special case. Observation is only to be trusted when it concurs with self-evident principles. Devices are inanimate; ergo anima in machina – an ‘animate inanimate’ – is a logical contradiction.”

“Yes, Your Eminence – and Master Leonardo would agree with you.”

“Well then?” He clearly wanted to get on with the next course. Oh well, he knew it was Leonardo. Might as well burn for a queen as a whore.

“Perhaps if you were to visit? See for yourself?”

The Grand Inquisitor sighed, “What is the point in looking at something that is not there?”

I thought carefully before going on, “I am sure that you are right. The illusion is certainly clever – and I grant you that like all artists, physicians and jesters Leonardo is licensed to produce such illusions providing they are acknowledged as such. The trouble is I cannot understand the illusion – although Leonardo explained it to me. It is as much a problem of faith for me that I ask you to resolve, Your Excellence.”

“Ah! – So you’re the heretic!”

“I am troubled in my soul – not heretical. I keep the sacraments and trust those – like you – who are wiser than I in matters of doctrine. I am sure that you must be right. I realise that it is tantamount to heresy to suggest to you that you need to see this device in operation – I merely crave your indulgence. The device is strange and disturbing to the soul and I fear that others may be influenced. I have you to confess to. Others – less fortunate – may be misled by the deception – even though Leonardo denounces it himself.”

The Grand Inquisitor considered. He looked pained. I had plainly spoiled his supper. He pushed his plate to one side, “Oh, very well!” He shook his head and scowled. “It’s just that that Leonardo fellow is such a bore!”


“It is coming into view on the horizon.” The Grand Inquisitor followed my line of sight and gazed at the long, black wall.

“What on earth is it?”

“It is a type of cabinet. It is one mile in length and a hundred feet high. It had to be constructed out here because it is a secret operation. It is made partially of stone and partially of wood.”

“I didn’t ask for a description! Whatever is it?”

“Leonardo calls it his ‘computing device’. He believes it will revolutionise warfare and – perhaps – civilian life as well.”

“You said he denied that it thinks.”

“He denies that much. He says it is an aid to computation. As a lever extends a man’s reach, so this device extends a man’s thinking – so Leonardo claims. He denies it does any thinking itself.”

“Hm. That is a tricky point. How does it work?”

“There I am at a loss. To me it is a box and nothing else! It is huge and doubtless very clever but very black and mysterious. I supplied the labour and even found him clerical workers to operate it.”

“Clerical workers?”

“Trappist monks.   Leonardo was not very impressed at their penmanship – he said it would be an unnecessary skill! When I said that – vow of silence or no – they could not speak Italian he seemed pleased. Communication was an unnecessary skill too it seems.”

“This has the smell of sulphur about it!” said the Grand Inquisitor and fell silent.

As we arrived, Leonardo ran out to meet us. He was pleased to see outsiders after so long in the wilderness. “Have you brought the materials I requested?” His request did seem to suggest that it was not human contact that he was missing.

I explained the position, how – as a tenant on my land – he was subject to the occasional inspection. He was rather nonchalant when I introduced him to the Grand Inquisitor, “Could you demonstrate to His Eminence, how you carry out computations with your device?”

Leonardo talked very rapidly for about an hour.  As he did, he showed us the device. It was, as I said a wall. The wall was filled with compartments like pigeonholes – he said there were over a million of them. There were ladders and walkways and poles all along the wall and I could see Trappist monks stationed at the ready.  “Let us try it with a little problem.” He looked from me to the Grand Inquisitor, “Let us say you wish to find the area of a courtyard. This requires that two numbers be multiplied together. You will give me one number and he can give me the other.”  We gave him the numbers although I could see that the Grand Inquisitor had misgivings. He looked at me significantly as Leonardo walked over to a small hut. We followed and found Leonardo writing on a piece of parchment. “The pigeonholes each have a door which can be opened or closed. I write instructions, which I give to the monks. You will notice that the instructions have no mention of the numbers you gave to me.  Look, that symbol means, ‘If a certain pigeon hole is open, then close it’ while that symbol means, ‘if a certain pigeon hole is closed, leave it open, and open the next one to it’ and so forth. Now I have written these instructions on the parchment, which I hand to a monk and we can now walk off and leave the computation to the device. Come, I will show you from where we have a good view.” We followed Leonardo for some distance before we arrived at a lookout post.  From here, on the top of a hill, we could see the wall of pigeonholes quite clearly. “Do you see the lights shining through the pigeonholes?” Leonardo looked very pleased with himself. “We use daylight at the moment, but I’m working on an oil powered version which will mean that we don’t have to stop computing at night time or when it is a dull day! Now, see those lights? They’ve changed position! Look! Another one’s changed as I speak! The fellow who you see writing crosses on the blackboard is recording the changes. See how he has it marked in a grid? There are lookout posts all along the wall. Your silly little seven times six is only occupying one lookout post. We won’t even need to wait for the others. See, I can read it off already, ‘space – cross – space – cross – space – cross.’ Forty two! Normally, the lookout copies the result on to parchment and sends it to me and I take all the parchments together and work out the answer. Of course, we can set a really difficult problem if you like – something to do with missile trajectories, perhaps. I know how interested you clergy are in military matters!”

The Grand Inquisitor ignored the jibe, “But is this of practical use? I mean, you could have worked out seven times six without all this!”

“Ah, yes. It is slow at the moment.” Leonardo was clearly enthusiastic, “My sponsors – the Visconti-Sforzas – have paid for this on the strength of my diagrams and description. Now that it can be seen to work they will fund further developments. We use monks for demonstration purposes. Monkeys could do as well if they were trained up to it. We could use a sort of banana code. And then there is the possibility of mechanisation. We may be able to reduce the size as well.”

“I would like to see another demonstration,” said the Grand Inquisitor.

“Certainly!” Leonardo was only too pleased.

“I will have to think about it, but the device is intriguing. Master Leonardo, we will see you in the morning.”

As we walked away, I admitted to His Eminence that my fears seemed groundless on closer examination, “The monks were doing the computing!  When he said it was the device I took him seriously…”

“Fool!” snapped the Grand Inquisitor, “I understand these things if you do not. When he talks of replacing monks with monkeys – or mechanisms – I take him very seriously indeed!”

“It will take several hours – all day, in fact!” Leonardo was not being obstructive. He was ready for the challenge. “So, let me make sure I’ve got this right; you want to know that – given these factors – the strength of the enemy, their position, wind speed and so on – whether your hypothetical army should advance or hold your position. This is a fascinating problem because it is in a hierarchy of smaller problems: will your cannon balls reach the fortifications; will the enemy’s losses are sufficient…?”

“Yes, yes – but can it be done?”

“Oh yes, it can be done! I will start on it immediately!”

Leonardo got to work writing long strings of seeming gibberish on to parchment. It took him over an hour, but he eventually stood up and said, “There! – I now have it in a form that can be processed by the monks – who, of course, know nothing of war or ballistics. What is more, even I do not know the answer. I was in such a hurry to compile the lists of instructions that I did not have time to work it out myself.”

Along the length of the wall, monks were scurrying up ladders and sliding down poles. It was a frenzy of activity quite different from that of the day before. “The beauty of this is that once compiled, individual quantities can be changed to meet changing conditions. Even I am not needed for that. I can imagine a sort of  ‘programmaton’ with blank spaces. You write numbers in and they are translated automatically. I will call it, ‘Applied Problem Programmaton’ or ‘APP’. You want the solution to a military problem, there’s an APP for that. You want to design a new cathedral? There’s an APP for that…”

“Written down? You mean by a monk, I suppose?” His Eminence was concerned.

“Oh no!  – It does not have to be a monk. We only use monks because we are at the alpha stage of the work. For the beta stage we will use monkeys and the gamma… ah yes! When we get the gamma version it will be purely mechanical. There is nothing it does which really needs human intervention.” The Grand Inquisitor looked very alarmed, but Leonardo did not seem to notice. “I suppose,” said Leonardo, gently tittering to himself, “I could be doing myself out of a job!”

The sun was setting when Leonardo called to tell us he had the final result. “The answer is ‘No’,” he said. “In other words, hold your position and do not attack.”

His Excellency paused and stroked his chin before saying, “Correct. The example is one already worked out on the battlefield. We could apply other tests, but I have no doubt the outcome would be the same. Congratulations, Master Leonardo.”

It must be demons, I thought. The monks were possessed by demons and were thus able to do the computations. The Grand Inquisitor would see that, I was sure.

“I must now ask you a question, Master Leonardo,” said the Grand Inquisitor,  “and I ask you to give very careful thought to it before you answer and answer truthfully. Did your device make the decision to hold the position and not attack; or was it the monks; or yourself?”

“The device made the decision. It is a device for making decisions.”

“So it thinks?”

“It makes decisions – if you call that thinking, yes. It thinks.”

“Does it have consciousness?”

“Of course not!”

“Has it a soul?”

“That is ridiculous! You have seen it! It is empty boxes. That is all!”

Empty boxes filled with demons. Leonardo had talked of how he saw a future with computeri – as he called them – in use throughout Christendom. That could only mean an outbreak of diabolism and chaos such as the world had never seen.

As we walked back to where our horses were stabled, the Grand Inquisitor was deep in thought. At length he spoke, “You were right. It is heresy. He admits that his device thinks. Do us all a favour. He is your tenant. Turn him off your land and have his infernal contrivance smashed and burned. The Visconti-Sforzas will not bankroll him a second time – I’ll see to that. Why! If monks could be replaced by machines – what next?”

I was relieved, but I was also disturbed, for if the damnable computera could be invented once it could be invented again – I pray not in my lifetime. I am only glad that I do not know enough science or theology to know if I am right.

For if we displease God as some say we do, what is to prevent Him from turning aside from us and incarnating a soul in a wall of pigeon holes on some distant hill?


About Zoe Nightingale

I am a writer of short stories, novels, poetry and non fiction.
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