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THE GOODS | CYBURBIA

Clicking Into Da Vinci's Mind

November 12, 1996|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The business world is used to watching and second-guessing Bill Gates' every move. Until 1994, however, he was practically a nonentity in the worlds of art and antiquities.

That's when it was revealed he was the secret bidder at an auction of a 72-page, Leonardo da Vinci manuscript. The gavel came down at a record $30.8 million. Although there are several other Da Vinci notebooks, in which he set down his ideas about the scientific nature of the universe, Gates' was the only one in private hands.

But the sultan of software has made no moves to associate himself with any particular museum or university, and has not announced plans to put the manuscript, known as the "Codex Leicester," on permanent display. As it turns out, Gates' plan was much more closely tied to the industry that made him a worldwide figure.

A CD-ROM, "Leonardo da Vinci," has just been released by Gates' Corbus Corp. The disk touches on many aspects of Da Vinci's life and work, but its primary focus is on the Codex.

Unfortunately, it is the section of the CD-ROM that deals with the Codex that is the weakest.

Overall, the CD-ROM is beautifully designed ("art and design" is credited to Cecil Juanarena), and the non-Codex sections make great use of enhancements such as animations, graphics and narration. Especially nicely done is a timeline that spans the great Renaissance man's life. Click on any of the depictions of paintings, drawings, sculptures or architecture, and you get an explanation of what was going on in the world and Da Vinci's life at that time.

Some of these inventive enhancements are put to use in the Codex section. The document was penned in Da Vinci's characteristic backward writing that has to be viewed in a mirror image. The disk provides an illuminating commentary speculating on why he did this, and provides clickable tools that reverse the type to show how it would look in regular Italian.

You can also view the text in English or see translations of only one section at a time.

The text itself includes his brilliant musings on a variety of early 16th century mysteries of the natural world, such as: why the sky is blue, why the moon shines and why fossils of sea creatures are found on mountaintops.

Digital enhancements are especially helpful when dealing with scientific topics. For example, a Codex section on the moon's glow could offer a variety of multimedia presentations to inform the viewer about popular theories of Da Vinci's time, his own theories (he got it right) and present-day scientific thought.

*

But unfortunately, the Codex section is sadly lacking in digital tools. Only a few pages offer clickable commentary; there is not even a clickable index to allow the viewer quick access to Codex topics and scientific sections elsewhere on the disk are not linked to the appropriate Codex text.

It's a shame. In high school, I had a biology teacher named Mr. Carson who made the subject so vibrant that another teacher said of him, "I'd rather be attached to a tree on a 6-foot chain with Bob Carson than be allowed to wander through the forest by myself."

The best CD-ROMs provide you with a digital Bob Carson. This one is lacking where it counts.

"Leonardo da Vinci" is available in the Windows format for about $35. The Macintosh version is due out next month.

* Cyburbia's e-mail address is david.colker@latimes.com.

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