Drawn To Davinci

For One Devotee, Leonardo's Humanity Is As Intriguing As His Genius.

March 04, 2004|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

He dissected 30 bodies, kept about 20,000 pages of notes and seldom finished what he started.

But nearly 500 years after his death, Leonardo da Vinci can still draw a crowd - not only as an artist, but as a scientist.

Tonight, a sellout crowd of more than 400 will gather at the Walters Art Museum to hear Kennedy Krieger Institute researcher Jonathan Pevsner discuss da Vinci's genius, focusing on the Renaissance master's study of the human brain.

Scholars have spent careers deciphering da Vinci's sketches of flying ships, his catapults and the prescient knowledge of his celestial observations.

But Pevsner may be uniquely qualified to discuss his particular topic: He spends his days researching childhood brain diseases, and his devotion to his hero - "I love Leonardo," he says - seems borderline fanatic. He owns 600 books about da Vinci and has been known to stare at his paintings for hours.

Pevsner, 42, is a soft-spoken molecular biologist and an expert on the technology used to study such disorders as Down syndrome and lead poisoning. He has been a da Vinci devotee since age 17, when he went to England with his family, saw his first da Vinci sketch and sat staring at it for six hours. It was the "Cartoon for the Virgin and Child with St. Anne and the Infant St. John" at the National Gallery in London. He had never seen anything like the striking detail in the women's angelic faces.

"I was transfixed by it," he recalls.

Pevsner's fixation is rare, but lesser degrees of it are common. When the nation's top museums organize touring exhibits of da Vinci's sketches every few years, they routinely sell out. When the Codex Leicester, a book of da Vinci's notes, sold at auction in 1994, Microsoft magnate Bill Gates paid a whopping $30.8 million. (In the codex, da Vinci observes - a century before Galileo established it - that the light of the moon is reflected sunlight. )

Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code has become a controversial work of fiction, but its status as a best seller may be partially due to a fascination with da Vinci and the Renaissance. The book, a murder mystery set in the Louvre in Paris, suggests that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. (Note to the novel's readers: Leonardo was not a descendant of Mary Magdalene.)

"I think people are inspired by da Vinci because he did so many things with his life," Pevsner says.

The museum scheduled Pevsner's talk with The Da Vinci Code's popularity in mind, according to Melinda Evasius, manager of adult programs at the Walters. The 420 tickets to Pevsner's talk were snapped up within a few weeks, a demand that surprised organizers. The museum this week also began displaying its 16th-century copy of the Mona Lisa because of renewed interest in da Vinci.

"We're still turning people away," Evasius said. "It's a subject people feel a connection with."

A devotee like Pevsner considers The Da Vinci Code a good read, but terribly inaccurate as a source of information. The novel's inaccuracies about da Vinci outnumber the factual points about 20-to-1, he says.

Written proof

But he sees evidence of the public fascination with da Vinci in all that's been written about him.

"There have been thousands of books written about him, that should tell you something," Pevsner said.

He has been buying books about da Vinci since he was a teen-ager and has so far amassed a collection that fills a room in his Baltimore home and clutters his modest office at Kennedy Krieger. The books, many with cracked bindings and dog-eared pages, are piled up on shelves and tables. They are written in a dozen languages, including tongues like Japanese and Norwegian, that Pevsner cannot understand and never will.

But that doesn't seem to matter.

"I just like having them," he says.

Pevsner's goal is to collect the same volumes that da Vinci owned and to read all of the same books and authors. Horace, Aesop, Plato and St. Augustine are all on his list.

As a scientist, Pevsner knows more about the brain than most of us. A graduate of the Park School and Haverford College, he has a doctorate in pharmacology from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He has won two teaching awards at the medical school and written a textbook on bioinformatics, the science that uses computers in the study of biology.

He has lectured on da Vinci to staff at Kennedy Krieger and to various book groups, written an article about him for one scientific journal and plans to write another for Scientific American.

But he approaches da Vinci more as fan than an expert, preferring to call himself an "amateur."

Some facets of da Vinci's life are widely known. He was fascinated by flight, was a rival of Michelangelo's and wrote in a backward script that makes his handwriting easier to read by holding it to a mirror.

But Pevsner remains fascinated by some of the lesser known frailties that made da Vinci human: His Latin was weak, he had trouble adding numbers and he disliked poetry.

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