The Happiness Machine*

by Marie Marshall

This will be the last entry I make in my journal. I may not die today but nevertheless I shall write no more. I have written and read and studied all my life and, yes, I have painted. I have painted faithfully as Master Leonardo da Vinci taught me, because there could be no other possible response to his selfless and incandescent love. I have no more to do and must set my house in order – praecipe domui tuae morieris enim et non vives, says the scripture. I have made my will and have left all Master Leonardo’s works, designs, and notes, and indeed all scraps and chits with his signature upon them or in his hand, to my son Orazio. They are to remain here in Vaprio d’Adda, safe in the hands of our family, for ever. They are now our birthright – or, no, we are their custodians.

There is an exception. I make this confession now. It is not a sin so I do not need to make it to a priest. It is a work of Christian charity, I see this now in my old age, in my final days. While I was young I might, I might, have dared to challenge or to stir things up, but now I seem to hear to echoes of a great hall of judgment, I know that all my deeds are being weighed, I will be judged. The exception is one bundle of papers that I have burned. It was the design for a machine and notes on its construction and use. I wept as I burned them for the simple reason that Master Leonardo had entrusted them to me on his deathbed. I was with him in France when he died, and it was I and not the King of France – disbelieve the legends! – who cradled his head as he died. I returned the Master’s love with a pupil’s devotion and its incandescence is within me still. He put his trust in me to seek a time and place where the knowledge in those papers would be accepted and I betrayed that trust. God above, will that weigh against me?

Leonardo’s designs were, the master himself told me, refinements and improvements of some earlier patterns for a machine that had actually been built by Verrochio, his own teacher. You all think of Verrochio as a painter, but just like Master Leonardo he was a natural philosopher skilled in geometry, architecture, medicine, and alchemy. Hearing that Verrocchio was dying, Master Leonardo journeyed from Milan to Venice to be with him, and he received the first draft of the designs he later gave to me, and he heard from Verrocchio’s own lips the story of the building and demonstration of the machine. He told it to me and whether he put flesh on the skeleton in his telling I do not know, but as he recounted it to me it was as though I heard the voices, saw the scene, witnessed the workings of the machine for myself.

It all happened in the time of His Holiness Pope Paul the Second. His Holiness was, in a way, a natural philosopher too, inasmuch as he loved machines. They delighted him, he understood them, appreciated the beauty of the mathematical principles behind their processes. It was said that he built his own Archimedes’ screw in the Vatican in order to demonstrate its properties to his cardinals. He authorized the setting up of printing presses throughout the Holy See and all Christendom, but immediately he had done so he realised their power, their potential for independence, as though they had minds of their own and could decide whether to lie or speak the truth. He imposed strict control on their construction and use. It was said that he had a small army of clerks who drew up an index of every press in existence and every printed work they produced. All natural philosophers who were concerned with the building of machines brought the plans or working models before the Holy Father who, if he approved of them, would affix his seal to the plan and grant a license for their construction.

Master Verrocchio was one such maker of machines, and one day he gained an audience with His Holiness for the purpose of demonstrating a machine of his devising. It consisted of a fixed chair over which two hoops were suspended in such a way that they could each spin freely. Each hoop had, on the outside of what I might call its northern, western, southern, and eastern points, a counterweight of lodestone, placed so that there was a tendency for the hoops to return from any eccentric alignment to one of ninety degrees relative to each other. The inside of each hoop was lined with reflecting plates like those described in the writings of Ibn al-Haytham. As a description that is the bare bones of it. There was much more to it, great delicacy and precision in its construction (oh, much more so in the drawings of Master Leronardo, believe me), but I shall leave all that dark.

Master Verrocchio explained to the Holy Father that it was an engine for generating happiness and that he had devised, it out of a sense of caritas, for the benefit of mankind. He hoped that the Pontiff, as the Vicar of Christ who wished nothing but good for all His children, would be the first to try its efficacy.

The Holy Father agreed, and seated himself in the central chair. Master Verrochio made adjustments to ensure that the machine was at a certain orientation relative to the sun, the moon, and the known bearings of divers points on the earth, and set it in motion. Slowly at first and then faster, faster, faster until they were a blur, the hoops spun around the Holy Father, who sat gripping the arms of the chair. The facets of the reflecting plates on the inside of the hoops merged, and it seemed to onlookers as though the Holy Father’s face was magnified in them, round and shining. To the amazement of those onlookers that face began to smile, to beam, to grin, and then its eyes closed and great guffaws of delighted laughter could be heard over the mechanical whirring. The Holy Father was laughing as merrily as a child at a fair.

Master Verrochio let this continue for some minutes and then applied some careful friction to the moving parts of the machine, one by one, causing the spinning to slow. More and more slowly spun the hoops, until at last they stopped.

Wiping a tear from his eye with the sleeve of his vestment, the Holy Father stepped, still smiling, from the machine. He was still smiling, but with a smile that was at once beatific and confident, when he turned not to Master Verrochio to congratulate him but to an attendant. He ordered bell, book, and candle to be brought. He ordered firewood and faggots. He ordered pitch, oil, and torches. He ordered all these things to be fetched without a moment’s delay, while Master Verrochio stood mutely by, half bewildered and half afraid for his life and his immortal soul.

Once everything for which the Holy Father had called was assembled, he solemnly excommunicated and burned… the happiness machine.

When it had been reduced to ashes, he turned to Master Verrochio, thanked him for the demonstration, blessed him with the sign of the cross in nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti, and held out his hand so that Master Verrochio could kiss the ring on his finger. There was no further exchange between them and Master Verrochio left the papal presence never to return.

He had realised perhaps (though it is more likely he was now afraid to defy the Holy Father openly by continuing with his machine) what I came to realise once the sobriety of age had overtaken the rashness of youth, and what I realise more than ever now that proof of my mortality is stark before me. What was once supposedly evident to me in my confident and humanistic youth has faded and faded to be replaced by a simple and blessed faith – oh such a thing as never happened in the case of my own beloved Master Leonardo! – and my eyes are opened. If man could, by his own contrivance, build some machine, distil some elixir, devise some physical or mental exercise to ensure his happiness, what need would there be for the guiding presence of Mother Church? What need would there be for the salvation of his immortal soul. What need would there be – dare I breathe this even now? – for Christ Jesus? When I ask these questions I know that the act of destroying the last record of the happiness machine, although it was in defiance of my earthly Master whom I loved without reservation, it was in obedience to my Heavenly Master to whom all love, all reverence, all obedience are due. I will go to my eternal rest with peace in my heart. Peace, indeed, but not happiness. That is not my lot, nor anyone’s – homo ad laborem nascitur et avis ad volatum. The book is now closed.

Written on the 31st day of January, anno domini MDLXX, at Vaprio d’Adda, by me, Fancesco Melzi.


* This story is inspired by, but not based on, the story of the same name by Ray Bradbury