Painter. Scientist. Inventor. Designer. Engineer. Visionary. Genius.
Has there ever been a man with more labels attached to his name than Leonardo da Vinci?
Probably not. In a world where mere mortals struggle to master just one profession, da Vinci seemed to master them all. He painted "The Mona Lisa" more than 500 years ago, and it's still probably the most famous painting in the world. He was a key developer of the camera obscura, an early projection device whose descendants include the still camera. He studied human anatomy, invented the ball bearing, designed primitive tanks, helicopters and even lawn mowers, centuries before they were invented.
Beginning Saturday and running through Jan. 31, the Maryland Science Center will be home to "Da Vinci - The Genius," a traveling exhibit that should be mandatory viewing for those both unfamiliar with or doubtful of his genius and for those who might enjoy being overwhelmed by it.
"There is so much to absorb," says Brenda Lewis, the science center's acting director of exhibits. "To have all of these [areas] in which he could operate. It's amazing that these things that we use today, these were 15th-century ideas that we have either improved upon or extended. To think that what we are looking at today was thought of over 500 years ago ..."
While the exhibit doesn't feature any of de Vinci's actual paintings or other works - such valuable treasures don't do a lot of traveling - the man's incalculable intelligence and curiosity could not be better represented. Dozens of his designs, including a one-man band and a prototypical diving suit, are brought into three dimensions, in ways he himself never saw in his lifetime. There are reproductions of his notebooks (known as codices), anatomical drawings and paintings.
"The Mona Lisa," safely tucked away behind bulletproof glass at the Louvre in Paris, with visitors kept at arm's length, all but comes to life here in Baltimore, with an entire room devoted to multiple images of the famous painting. Included is a series of oversize infrared photographs that reveal details long hidden under coats of varnish and years of wear, as well as original colors unseen for centuries.
The exhibit, housed on the center's second floor in its Legg Mason Gallery, opens with a timeline of da Vinci's life, 24 photographs chronicling not only events in his life, but in the world.
Born in 1452, the illegitimate son of a notary, da Vinci lived through a time of great cultural and scientific advancement. Among painters, his contemporaries in the Italian Renaissance movement included Michelangelo and Raphael. During his lifetime, the first books were printed in English, the Tudors rose to power and Christopher Columbus set sail for what he thought would be India.
To be thought of as the greatest mind of that era was no mean feat.
"He's one of the greatest geniuses of all time, really," says Rob Kirk of Grande Exhibitions, the Australian-based company that put together the exhibit. "The breadth of his knowledge, and the genius, is astonishing."
Most of "Da Vinci - The Genius" is devoted to realizations of more than 65 of his designs, all constructed by skilled Italian artisans using materials and methods that would have been available in his time. Some of the resulting machines are built to operational size, such as the "aerial screw," a helicopter prototype some 12 feet high. Others are done to scale, such as the carro armato, or tank, a pyramid-shaped vehicle that would need to be big enough to hold nine men (one to fire the gun, eight to turn cranks that would move the vehicle), but here is about the size of an amusement-park bumper car.
There's even a miniature "ideal city," devised some 400 years before James Rouse would come up with the idea for Columbia, containing lots of open space and houses raised on stilts high above the streets and sewers.
The fact that da Vinci himself was never able to see his designs realized adds a measure of poignancy to the exhibit. But there's a potent sense of exhilaration, as well. He wasn't afraid to take on problems his contemporaries thought impossible - the idea of a machine that flew, especially while spinning like a top, must have seemed pretty ridiculous at the time.
Da Vinci himself acknowledged that some of his designs, often commissioned by leaders of Italian city-states looking for a leg up in the 15th-century arms race, were impractical. A mowing machine, 10 scythes mounted on a wagon and pulled by a horse, would most likely scare the poor creature, he once said. And a "multi-directional gun machine" (mitragliatrice a ventaglio), something of a portable artillery line or an early machine gun, seems like a great idea, but where would a soldier find the time to reload it?