The Italian Almanac

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portrait of Luca Pacioli

Oldest Magic Text

After lying almost untouched in the vaults of an Italian university for 500 years, a book on the magic arts written by Leonardo da Vinci's best friend and teacher has been translated into English for the first time. The world's oldest magic text, De viribus quantitatis (On The Powers Of Numbers) was penned by Luca Pacioli, a Franciscan monk who shared lodgings with Da Vinci and is believed to have helped the artist with The Last Supper.

It was written in Italian by Pacioli between 1496 and 1508 and contains the first ever reference to card tricks as well as guidance on how to juggle, eat fire and make coins dance. It is also the first work to note that Da Vinci was left-handed. Although the book has been described as the "foundation of modern magic and numerical puzzles," it was never published and has languished in the archives of the University of Bologna, seen only by a small number of scholars since the Middle Ages.

The transcription has taken eight years, involved several translators and cost thousands of pounds. William Kalush, a magician and the founder of the Conjuring Arts Research Centre in New York, who financed the project, said: "This book is the first major manual that is primarily concerned with teaching how to perform magic. "Sources of magic methods go back at least to the first century, but 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."

The book was rediscovered after David Singmaster, a mathematician, came across a reference to it in a 19th-century manuscript. "It's the foundation not only of modern magic but of numerical puzzles too," he said. "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."

Pacioli was born in Tuscany in 1445 and was a travelling mathematics tutor. He is often called the father of modern accountancy because his book The Summa (1494) contains the first published description of double-entry bookkeeping, accountancy's basic technique. He lived with Da Vinci in Milan from 1496 for several years and taught maths and geometry to the painter, scientist and inventor. They collaborated on many projects including a book, De Divina Proportione (1509), which Da Vinci also illustrated.

De viribus quantitatis is divided into three sections: mathematical problems, puzzles and tricks, and a collection of proverbs and verses. Tricks include how to write a sentence on the petals of a rose, wash your hands in molten lead and make an egg walk across a table. It also contains some of the first known European examples of numerical puzzles, which are similar to those printed in today's newspapers, such as Sudoku. There is also a diagram of a moving piece puzzle which was the medieval version of the Rubik's cube.