Remembering the genius of da Vinci at Museum of Science and Technology

The faces of Mona Lisa. Photo courtesy Ingenium — Canada's Museums of Science and Innovation

How staggering was the genius of Leonardo Da Vinci? Consider this: the man who painted what many consider to the greatest painting, the Mona Lisa, also invented the submarine.

Leonardo conceived so many things that the pace of human progress must have slowed when he died on May 2, 1519 — exactly 500 years before the opening of the Museum of Science and Technology’s new exhibit, 500 Years of Genius.

It’s a bold title, but the breadth of Leonardo’s stride across art and science is unrivalled. He is the colossus of creativity and invention.

The exhibition both assembles (modern full-scale models from his original designs) and disassembles (an intensive separation of the Mona Lisa into layers). While it’s heartbreaking that “much of his work has been lost,” he left behind notebooks with thousands of pages, including the Codex Leicester that was purchased for more than $30 million U.S. by Bill Gates in1994. Reproductions of several codices are displayed, the pages dense with Leonardo’s tight handwriting and margins full of drawings, like the journal of a preternaturally inspired teenager.  (In his teens Leonardo designed “burning mirrors” that would weld metal. When I was a teen I hung around behind McDonald’s and smoked cigarettes.)

Leonardo da Vinci

The exhibition begins with reproductions of Leonardo paintings, including the exquisite Lady with an Ermine. Throughout the rooms are models built from his designs, and the scope of it all left me wishing he’d invented a device to pick up a dropped jaw.

He invented or greatly improved drills and cranes and a self-propelled cart that some people cite as the precursor of the automobile. He designed the “ideal city” that would be less susceptible to the plague that was the deadly scourge of Europe at the time. He conceived the double-hulled ship, now used by massive tankers carrying oil and other resources. He designed so many things that I can’t fit them all in one paragraph and now I have to start a new one.

He recognized the importance of ball-bearings to reduce friction in machines — an idea the world largely forgot the next 200-odd years. He designed a paddle boat, and the submarine that would attach a weighted line to an enemy ship’s hull and the other end to the sea floor, and then watch from a safe distance as the ship set sail and ripped out its own hull planking.

He designed a “vertical flying machine,” a “flapping wing,” a glider and a parachute. Others later built his parachute and glider and both worked, with minor modifications that Leonardo would surely have made, had he been able to test his inventions — an outcome he foresaw. “There shall be wings!” he wrote. “If the accomplishment be not for me, ’tis for some other.”

A smattering of his inventions. Photo courtesy Ingenium — Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation

It seems wrong that such a mind was fettered by the need for a job, but he worked for the Medici and Borgia families, and in 1482 he wrote to the duke of Milan and hinted of plans to build “very light, strong and easily portable bridges,” and other wonders.

Leonardo was a pacifist, but the exhibition notes drily observe that his wealthy patrons “had more use for military machines than for paintings.”

So he designed and built weapons, including an armoured vehicle that would roll around the battlefield firing in all directions, 400 years before tanks debuted in the First World War. He built a “Three-Registered Gun-Machine,” that arguably was the first machine gun. He designed a horrifying chariot that had four large, rotating scythes that would slice and dice the enemy like tomatoes in a food processor, and a giant crossbow like the one Cersei used to try to shoot down dragons on Game of Thrones.

He also built musical instruments, such as a “portable piano” and a “mechanical drum” that beat rhythms so complex they would fool the enemy into “believing that the approaching army was far greater in size than it actually was,” an effect that wouldn’t be repeated until a half-millennium later when rock and roll gave us Keith Moon.

Leonardo da Vinci conquered the worlds of art and science. Photo courtesy Ingenium — Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation

It wasn’t all military work. The Milanese did commission him to paint The Last Supper, another painting that practically defines the medium for many people to this day. 

Leonardo also — and this is where you shake your head and suggest that I’m making all this up — designed dresses. The duke liked a lavish party, and Leonardo designed the costumes and masks. Then he built a spotlight projector to project images as background in the theatre. In one gallery, where large screens scroll images of Leonardo’s drawings and such, I half expected to read that he’d written the accompanying music (until I recognized some Vivaldi.)

Then there’s the Mona Lisa, which gets a large section of its own and testifies to the statement that, “Leonardo was a perfectionist who continually made notes about his artistic technique and repeatedly revised and retouched his paintings.”

Photography and other modern technologies were used to separate the layers of the portrait, and the revelations are spectacular. That face and enigmatic smile are much changed by time and restorations from what Leonardo created, and the portrait is actually the fourth that he painted on the same board, one over the other.

Leonardo Da Vinci: 500 Years of Genius is thrillingly inspiring. There’s so much to see that I almost didn’t notice the Leonardo aphorisms stencilled on the walls — for example, “People of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things,” or “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” The exhibition runs until Sept. 2.

Leonardo, master of the motivational poster. Was there anything he couldn’t do?

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.