While racing along a freeway with air conditioner humming and a CD blasting as the glassy towers of a modern metropolis rise beyond a tangle of interlocking freeways, I often wonder, “What would Leonardo think?”
Of all the Renaissance geniuses — and there were many — Leonardo da Vinci is the most like us: skeptical, inquisitive, observant, a DIY tinkerer always trying something new.
Now popularly identified as the painter of “Mona Lisa,” he was, in fact, a jack-of-all-trades who is being celebrated in “Leonardo da Vinci, the ‘Codex Leicester’ and the Creative Mind,” opening Sunday at Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA).
Although he lived in an age of fortified cities ringed with thick stone walls and towers, Leonardo was forever pushing the conceptual envelope by designing canals, bridges and transportation (flying machines, armored tanks) that couldn’t be realized with 15th- century technology.
He would have been over the moon with access to carbon fiber, plastics, 3-D printers, reinforced concrete, steel and plate glass — to say nothing about electricity.
Long before colleges invented science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors, Leonardo (1452-1519) was deep into those fields. In his own day, he was known as an engineer, architect, inventor, mathematician, cartographer, gadgeteer, musician and party planner for aristocratic courts.
There are no paintings in the MIA’s exhibit, which is built around a rare notebook of Leonardo’s that Microsoft founder Bill Gates bought for a record-setting $30.8 million in 1994. Instead, the exhibit presents Leonardo as the prototype of the creative thinker, a guy whose jottings are a fount of ideas in evolution.
Half of the show is devoted to notebooks and projects by 21st-century American inventors and artists whose products include Rollerblades, infant car seats, crocheted models of “hyperbolic geometry” and a video interpretation of a legendary 19th-century French painting.
Organized in collaboration with the Phoenix Art Museum, the show will travel to the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh after it closes in Minneapolis on Aug. 30.
Written in backward script
The exhibition’s centerpiece is the “Codex Leicester,” a 72-page notebook or “codex,” a scientific treatise about the movement of water that Leonardo penned between about 1507 and 1510.
It is named after Thomas Coke, the earl of Leicester, an English grandee whose estate owned it for more than 250 years.
Gates typically allows it to be exhibited once a year. At his request, visitors will enter the show through an airport-style security screening station.
Composed in antique Italian, the manuscript is unintelligible to all but scholars because lefthanded Leonardo wrote it backward, working from right to left across the page, his tiny brown-ink letters designed to be read in a mirror.
Fortunately, translations and explanations of each page will be available on interactive touch screens.
What especially intrigues modern viewers are Leonardo’s postage-stamp-sized sketches in the margins. Exquisitely detailed, they illustrate his observations about how water eddies and pools; devices for measuring or redirecting its flow; speculations about the movement of tides; the origin of mountain streams; the composition of the moon, and its relationship to the sun and Earth.
“It’s not a simple document that records his thought processes; it is a very messy document in which he develops his ideas,” said Alex Bortolot, the show’s Minneapolis curator.
Endlessly curious, Leonardo was continually making notes, speculating about how things worked, experimenting, then changing his mind and coming up with new theories. All those fits and starts are recorded in the codex, which is “not unlike the way we all think,” Bortolot said.
Rollerblades and a yarn ‘reef’
The show asserts that inventors, scientists, mathematicians and artists still develop their ideas much as Leonardo did — through restless creative exploration.
Minnesota fitness buff Scott Olson, for example, didn’t exactly invent the concept of rolling footwear, but he did refine a long line of previous ideas into a multimillion-dollar business known as Rollerblade. The show includes drawings of 107 patents for different types of skates, dating from 1860-1991, related to Olson’s product.
The show also features prototypes of his current obsession, an aerial rowing or pedal-powered exercise device that he describes as “a cross between a roller coaster and a fitness machine.”
Another display shows ideas for children’s car seats that St. Paul-based industrial designers Don E. Harley and Associates sketched in the 1960s, long before they became standard safety equipment.
A gallery full of colorful crocheted sculptures offers a metaphoric link to Leonardo’s interest in water. The sculptures are part of the “Crochet Coral Reef,” an art, math and science project cooked up by the Los Angeles-based Institute for Figuring. Crocheted with brightly colored yarns, the sculptures loosely resemble coral reefs and are created using similar mathematical principles of “hyperbolic geometry.”
Leonardo also drew locks, dams and other devices to manage water’s energy and potentially destructive power. The show’s most dramatic contemporary piece, “The Raft” by videographer Bill Viola, addresses that issue.
His 2004 video is loosely inspired by Theodore Gericault’s monumental 1819 painting “The Raft of the Medusa,” which famously depicts the survivors of a French naval disaster who resorted to cannibalism to live. In Viola’s re-enactment, powerful streams of water batter a crowd of people who struggle, collapse and then tremulously regroup when the trauma ends.
The video is all the more poignant today amid seemingly ceaseless reports of ferry accidents and refugee-boat disasters.
“The art world is our stomping ground, but this show has the potential to reach people in so many fields,” Bortolot said.