Leonardo is not generally remembered as a story teller yet he wrote many fables that were in a similar vein to those of Aesop. Fables are very short, but involve complicated ideas and each one focused briefly on dangers like greed, jealousy and selfishness, or the benefits of compassion, kindness, honesty and generosity. It should be noted that fables are written, not so much for the entertainment of children, but to impart wisdom to adults.

A very polished author, story teller and debating partner, Leonardo's stories spread quickly and each became modified as it was passed from mouth to mouth. Of some there now exist several different versions.

Almost five centuries after they were first penned some of Leonardo's fables still exist and are told in the Tuscan countryside. Few people remember who was the author of these tales which were once told in the courts of France and Italy.  

Leonardo also told legends. These stories are handed down through the generations and though the plot and general ideas remain similar, modifications are made by the story teller to suit his needs.

These twenty-one fables will give you some insight into the stories of Leonardo da Vinci. They are illustrated with some of his drawings of which over 10,000 exist around the world, hi-res images are also available of each of these. It is said that the eagle in the first fable is Leonardo himself.

Testament of the Eagle

Many years ago, a majestic old eagle lived alone on top of a very high mountain. One day he sensed that the hour of his death was not far off. With a mighty cry he summoned his sons who lived lower down the mountain. When they were all gathered together, he looked at them one by one, and said:

" I have provided for you, and bought you up so that you might look directly at the sun. Those of your brother's who could not tolerate the sun's face I have allowed to die of hunger. For this reason, you deserve to fly higher than all the other birds. Any who want to preserve their lives will not attack your nest. All the animals will fear you and you shall never harm those who respect you. You shall allow them to eat up the scraps of your prey.

Now I am about to leave you. But I shall not die here in my nest. I shall fly very high, as far as my wings will carry me. I shall stretch out towards the sun to take my leave of it. The sun's fiery rays will burn my old feathers. I shall fall towards earth and finally into the water.

But miraculously I shall rise again from the water, rejuvenated and ready to begin a new existence. Such is the lot of eagles, our destiny."

With these words the eagle took to the air. Majestic and solemn he flew round the mountain where his sons stood. Then, suddenly, he turned upwards towards the sun which would burn up his tired old wings.

The Mouse, the Weasel & the Cat

The Mouse and the Cat -- Royal Collection, Windsor Castle
Studies and Positions of Cats (Detail)
Royal Collection, Windsor Castle

One morning a little mouse could not leave his house. It was besieged.

A hungry weasel was waiting outside. Through a tiny breathing hole the mouse saw him intently watching the entrance, ready to spring,

The poor little mouse, knowing himself to be in terrible danger, trembled all over with fear.

But a cat suddenly leaped onto the weasel's back, seized him between his teeth and devoured him.

"Great Jupiter, I thank you" sighed the nouse, who had observed the scene through his spy hole, "and I shall willingly sacrifice some of my food to you."

And so he gave the cat some of his food. But in escaping one danger, he foolishly forgot the other. The cat, being a cat, ate him too.

The Goldfinch

When she came back to her nest with a little worm in her beak, the goldfinch found her children gone. Someone had taken them while she was away.

She began to search everywhere for them, crying and calling. The whole forest resounded with her shrieks, but no one replied.

Night and day, without eating or sleeping, the goldfinch hunted for her little ones, searching every tree and looking in every nest.

One day a chaffinch said to her: "I think I saw your children at the farmer's house."

The goldfinch went off full of hope, and soon arrived at the farmer's house. She perched on the roof, but there was no one there. She flew down into the yard -- no one.

Then raising her head, she saw a cage hanging outside the window. Her children were prisoners inside it.

When they saw their mother clinging to the bars of the cage, the children began to cheep, begging her to let them out. She tried to break the bars of their prison, with her beak and claws, but in vain.

Then, with a great cry of grief, she flew away.

The next day the goldfinch returned to the cage where her children were trapped. She gazed at them for a long time with sorrow in her heart. Then she fed them through the bars one by one, for the last time.

She had bought them a poisonous herb, and the little birds died.

"Better death," she said, "than the loss of liberty."


Wine drunk by a drunken man revenges itself on the drinker.


The Swan

The swan arched his supple neck towards the water and gazed at his reflection for a long time.

He understood the reason for his weariness and for the cold that gripped his body, making him tremble as though it were winter. With absolute certainty, he knew that his hour had come and that he must prepare for death.

His feathers were still as white as they had been on the first day of his life. Seasons and years had passed without a blemish appearing on his snowy plumage. He could go now, and his life would end in beauty.

Straightening his beautiful neck, he swam slowly and majestically beneath a willow, where he had been accustomed to rest in the hot weather. It was already evening, and the sunset was touching the water of the lake with crimson and violet.

And in the great silence that was falling all around, the swan began to sing.

Never before had he found notes so full of love for all of nature, for the beauty of the heavens, the water and the earth. His sweet song rang through the air, scarcely tinged with melancholy , until, softly, softly, it faded with the last traces of light on the horizon.

"It is the swan," said the fishes, the birds, and all of the beasts of the woodland and meadow. Touched to the heart, they said: "The swan is dying."

The Oyster & the Crab

The Crab -- Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne
The Crab (Detail)
Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne

An oyster was in love with the moon. When the full moon shone in the sky, he spent hours watching it with open mouth.

A crab saw from his observation post that the oyster was completely open at the full moon, and decided to eat him.

The following night, when the oyster opened, the crab put a pebble inside.

The oyster immediately tried to close again, but was prevented by the stone.

Moral: This happens to anyone who opens his mouth to tell his secrets. There is always an ear ready to receive them.

The Tongue & the Teeth

Once upon a time there was a boy who had a bad habit of talking more than was necessary.

"What a tongue!" sighed the teeth one day. "t is never still, never quiet!"

"What are you grumbling about?" replied the tongue arrogantly. "You teeth are only slaves, and your job is merely to chew whatever I decide. We have nothing in common, and I shall not allow you to meddle in my affairs."

So the boy went on chattering, very impertinently sometimes, and his tongue was happy, learning new words every day.

But one day, when the boy did some damage, and then allowed his tongue to tell a big lie, the teeth obeyed the heart, sprang together and bit the tongue.

From that day onward the tongue became timid and prudent, and thought twice before speaking.