Beyond Mona Lisa - way beyond Genius: An exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science shows that Leonardo da Vinci was not only a great painter, but also an extraordinary scientist and inventor.

April 06, 1997|By Michael Kilian | Michael Kilian,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

It's a portrait of genius.

In 15,000 square feet of paintings, drawings, artifacts, working models of extraordinary inventions, theatrical presentations and interactive displays, the Boston Museum of Science is presenting in its only American venue nothing less than the life and work of perhaps the greatest genius of Western civilization: Leonardo da Vinci, the original Renaissance Man.

Somehow, 15,000 square feet doesn't seem sufficient.

Called "Leonardo da Vinci: Scientist, Inventor, Artist," the show could just as logically have its title reversed. The painter who gave the world the Mona Lisa and "The Last Supper" would have been proclaimed an immortal on the strength of his canvases alone.

But, possessed of a relentless curiosity and a broad and incisive intellect, da Vinci (1452-1519) turned his hand to virtually the entire world around him -- land, sea and air.

Though he hated war and called it "a beastly madness," he was a redoubtable military engineer who designed impregnable forts, powerful siege machine and ingenious weapons, including prototypes of tanks and steam-driven cannons. He designed submarines, paddle boats, flying machines and helicopters centuries ahead of their time.

The author of monumental plans for huge bridges and elaborate canals, he also invented shoes for walking on water, life preservers, torpedoes and even an underwater breathing apparatus. The hygienic water system he built for Milan helped that city fight off the scourge of the Black Plague.

As a scientist, he pursued anatomy, zoology, botany, geology, optics, aerodynamics and hydrodynamics -- making discoveries as far afield as the effect of celestial bodies on tides and the formation of fossils. He was a skilled cartographer and produced one of the first maps to include America.

As an artist, he revolutionized the technique of chiaroscuro -- the shadings between light and dark -- and was a pioneer in the full development of sfumato, or the use of smoky shading to create (( dramatic atmospherics in a painting. He was accomplished as a musician and singer as well.

Born just outside Florence, Italy, the illegitimate son of a notary and a peasant girl, he rose to "premier painter and engineer and architect of the king" in the court of Francis I of France. Da Vinci had five sisters on his mother's side and 12 brothers and sisters on his father's side. He never married and kept to the company of men.

A strict vegetarian, he was left-handed and wrote backward. Some of his most important drawings and scientific notes were written on grocery lists.

"With a figure like Leonardo," said museum director David Ellis, "it's impossible to truly understand the nature of his genius by examining only a single work or a single aspect of his work. We saw in this exhibit a great chance to present the whole man, the whole spectrum of his work, to show the vital interconnections and the science underlying it all."

The exhibition, which has already played Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and Austria, is built around 13 interactive stations and includes an 8-foot model of "Il Cavallo," the famous da Vinci horse. There are also models of his 1490 design of a helicopter, his paddle boat and a parachute drop. The art includes a self-portrait and a bust of Christ.

The show closes Sept. 1 and moves on to Singapore. The Museum of Science is in Science Park, between Boston and Cambridge off Storrow Drive (Exit 26 from the Central Artery; 617-589-0200). Tickets are $10, $8 for children 14 and under and seniors, and advance reservations are strongly recommended.

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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