New exhibition explores the mechanical genius of Leonardo Da Vinci

12 February 2016

Though we now understand that Leonardo da Vinci was not an isolated genius, he had extraordinary vision and was “right up there with the great inventors like James Watt”, art historian Professor Martin Kemp said on the eve of a new exhibition about him at the Science Museum.

Leonardo exhibition

Speaking at the preview to Leonardo da Vinci: the mechanics of genius, which opened on 10 February, Kemp said that his ability to imagine and draw machines in 3D, including their internal components or “elementi”, was unsurpassed almost until the discovery of X-rays.

Kemp, a renowned historian of the Renaissance and an authority on Da Vinci, said he saw engineering as the “second nature of the world” and realised that it was vital to understand the laws behind nature in order to create works of art such as the Mona Lisa as well as to visualise complex machines.

While Da Vinci was involved in providing solutions to practical problems for his patrons, and he had worked as a military engineer and on hydrographic and geological surveys, he produced drawings of machines that had not yet been invented and might never be. In this he was not alone, as the great Renaissance engineers were much sought after by patrons such as city authorities and produced treatises of visionary machines that were their “visual calling cards” as they sought commissions, Kemp said. Often they produced designs intended for theatrical entertainments for wealthy patrons, he explained.

But though we had moved on from thinking he anticipated all the technologies we have today, Kemp said, we were “looking at one of the great monuments of the human mind”.

Leonardo exhibition

The exhibition includes models made in 1952 in Milan to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Da Vinci’s birth, reinterpreting them in 3D form. Models of diving apparatus, flying machines and a self-propelled vehicle are among the objects displayed, accompanied by interactive audio-visual screens. Texts beside the models categorise them on a five-point scale of practicality, from “impossible dream” through “project unworkable at the time”, “invention” and “improvement on existing techniques” to “continuing the tradition”.

But in fact almost all of these were only proposals rather than inventions that were ever put into concrete form, the museum’s keeper emeritus of collections, Professor Jim Bennett, explained. While contemporary visitors might wonder how far some of these ideas could have revolutionised manufacturing had they been realised, Bennett explained that the focus of Da Vinci’s mind as he grew older was increasingly on understanding nature and producing speculative designs.

One facet of Da Vinci’s inventiveness was on learning from the structure and function of plants and animals, and what today would be called biomimicry or bio-inspiration is explored in a small section showing present-day examples of such borrowing from nature, provided by Airbus, a major exhibition sponsor.

The exhibition is at the Science Museum until 4 September. Tickets are £10; concessions are available.

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