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PRESCIENT INVENTIONS : Fullerton Models the Scope of Leonardo's Genius

November 29, 1990|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

Well, you thirtysomethings, it's never too late to get smarter. Leonardo da Vinci was 30 in 1482 when he began studying arithmetic and advanced geometry. A few years later, he began dissecting and drawing cadavers. He had already picked up the rudiments of machine design and operation, as a teen-age apprentice to hotshot sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio. And somewhere along the line he also learned the rudiments of architectural design and nautical engineering.

Jack-of-all-trades and master of a remarkable number of them, Leonardo was a big believer in learning by doing--and seeing. His paintings and his scientific and engineering discoveries were rooted in a deep faith in the value of experience.

Serving as the royal "painter and engineer" for 17 years in the household of powerful Ludovico Sforza, the duke of Milan, Leonardo could rely on a workshop of apprentices and students to keep up the painting production. Meanwhile, he spent more and more time pondering how things were put together and how they worked.

One result was a stream of inventions, from a helicopter designed like an aerial screw to a military tank that resembles a metal cape or a primitive spaceship. "Leonardo," an exhibit at the Fullerton Museum Center through Jan. 20, organized by the Assn. of Science and Technology Centers of Washington, offers 27 three-dimensional models of some of these startlingly prescient inventions. Based on Leonardo's drawings, these modern-day constructions were loaned by International Business Machines Corp. Reproductions of some of the drawings are also on view.

Leonardo sketched on loose sheets of paper and tiny pads he kept in his belt. Later, he would organize these notations by theme and append them to a series of notebooks on architecture, mechanics, the human body and the theory of art.

The artist's tiny, crabbed notations in "mirror writing" (readable only when held up to a mirror) filled thousands of pages. His quixotic master plan was to draw all the objects in the visible world, fully revealing their complexity and detail.

Experts believe that his notebook on principles of mechanics is less important for its description of specific machines than for its investigation of their construction.

Equally significant was Leonardo's method of diagramming the machines and subordinating explanatory text to the drawing itself. Just as his anatomical illustrations laid the groundwork for modern medical illustration, his machine illustrations set new standards in precision and comprehension.

Still, the inventions are intriguing in a back-to-the-future way and designed with the sense of balance and proportion one might expect from a master artist.

Other Leonardo brainstorms in the show include: a hydraulic screw (operated by the movement and force of liquid); a gear-driven contraption resembling an automobile jack; an elegant spindle-shaped ship's hull; a rotating bridge; a pile driver; a scaling ladder (designed for enemy fortresses); an odometer, and forerunners of the anemometer (used to measure wind pressure) and the hygrometer, a gauge for humidity.

Leonardo also gets credit for a printing press. True, German printer Johann Gutenberg invented the movable type press about 1448, when Leonardo was still a twinkle in his mother's eye. But the artist seems to have been the first to come up with a major improvement: His version can be operated by just one person instead of the team required for the original press.

An invention of the master's that even a non-mechanical mind can grasp and hail is a double-tiered bridge, with the lower gangway for vehicles and the upper for pedestrians. Leave it to Leonardo to realize that the traffic problem would always be with us.

The museum center is also showing "Stolen Smiles: Mona Lisa Kitsch." This motley collection of objects (cards, ashtrays, clothing and more!) from the collection of Robert Miller and Debra Winters demonstrates how the famous painting has been used and abused in our time as a tool of Madison Avenue.

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