A flock of Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machines landed at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul on Saturday. Standing among the contraptions — conceived to go airborne with giant fabric oars, or wings, or a helix — gives a visceral sense of the renowned inventor’s prolific creativity, and the sense that his thinking was centuries ahead of his time.
While da Vinci might be best known for painting two of the world’s most famous works, “The Last Supper” and “The Mona Lisa,” he was, in fact, the Renaissance’s ultimate Renaissance man. He studied nearly every scientific and artistic practice, from architecture and anatomy to mathematics and music, along with paleontology, engineering and more.
As a plaque near the entrance of the new traveling exhibit “Inventing Genius” explains: Da Vinci lived his life as if he were on a quest to learn everything there was to know.
The timing of the exhibit, which runs through Sept. 2, is spot-on. Interest in the Italian polymath is being stoked again by cultural institutions celebrating the 500th anniversary of his 1519 death. And a recently rediscovered “lost” Leonardo, “Salvator Mundi,” sold for $450 million in 2017 — the highest price ever paid for an artwork at auction, despite its poor condition and disputed provenance.
“Inventing Genius” makes minimal reference to Vinci’s artistic achievements in favor of focusing on his scientific pursuits. The exhibit pairs dozens of models of his mechanical devices with a video tribute to 101 inventions that changed the world.
Near the entrance, facsimiles of da Vinci’s codices, or notebooks, show how he documented his exploration of everything from physics to biological processes. Da Vinci peppered his writing with diagrams to explain natural phenomena and describe the mechanical devices he conceptualized. Guided by these documents, Italian artisans gave three-dimentional form to da Vinci’s designs featured in the exhibit, including precursors to the car, helicopter, glider and parachute.
The difficult task involved deciphering da Vinci’s old Florentine dialect and mirror writing (he wrote text from right to left, with the individual letters reversed, so it looks like typical script only when read in a mirror). The artisans then brought his sketches to life at various scales, using materials and techniques that would have been available in 15th-century Italy.
The flying machines aren’t hands-on — we can’t expect the Science Museum to carry that much insurance — but there are several mechanical devices to operate, including ones that replicate da Vinci’s study of ratchets, ball bearings and a flywheel along with a couple of ways to convert the circular motion of a cranked wheel to horizontal motion. (Not only are those fun to play with, but you just inadvertently learned the mechanical principle that enables your car to drive you home.) His experiments with optics are most memorably represented by an eight-sided closet-size room with mirrors for walls.
Da Vinci designed many tools for military applications (a tank-like vehicle) as well as musical instruments (a double flute). Among the most surprising of his designs is a creepy-looking diving suit attached to two long breathing tubes that predated scuba gear by several centuries.
That’s a good idea
In the second half of the exhibit, “101 Inventions,” dozens of computer-controlled projectors display digital video on various walls. In about half an hour, the immersive video races through inventions that span humankind’s existence, from stone tools and the abacus to gene therapy and the World Wide Web. The inventions are shown not in chronological sequence but by order of their importance, as deemed by a panel of representatives of science and technology museums around the world who curated and ranked the list.
It’s more a crash course than comprehensive. Each invention is shown in action — canned goods are labeled, letterpress type is set, telephone operators connect calls — along with the inventor’s name and the date of creation, as well as with a brief fact or two. For example, Velcro held together a human heart during surgery. Or, in the future, GPS might be built into a car’s windshield. (The video does acknowledge downsides of advancement, including an image of a landfill for the segment on polystyrene, and a mention that sail-enabled ocean travel spread disease and fueled the growth of slavery.)
A few of the objects — a brick-size cellphone, a telescope, an Apple II computer — are on display in the adjacent room. Touch-screen displays offer more detailed information about each invention.
The Science Museum, which selected the exhibit to show how creative thinking and innovative problem-solving can be used to improve people’s lives, hopes it will inspire visitors to pursue their own artistic and scientific explorations. To enable that goal, the exhibit ends with an interactive area that lets visitors design and build their own inventions.
The da Vinci component of the show isn’t well-suited to young kids whose approach to museum exhibits is to grab the first thing that looks like it might move and yank on it. They’d be better off beelining to the interactive area’s Lego table and a pile of what looks like giant foam Tinkertoys.
But the interactive area isn’t all child’s play. Adults can be suitably challenged by trying to write their name while looking in a mirror, to mimic da Vinci’s trademark script or constructing a miniature version of his clever bridge design with small colored sticks.
A large number of the Science Museum’s adult visitors aren’t attending with kids — it’s a surprisingly popular first date spot. The exhibit could spur lengthy conversations about da Vinci’s genius and debate about the position of each invention on the 101 list.