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Da Vinci outside the box

A Chicago exhibition focuses on the genius' innovative sketches -- for creations that were way beyond his time.

April 15, 2006|From the Associated Press

CHICAGO — When Leonardo da Vinci died nearly 500 years ago, his masterpieces -- "Mona Lisa" and "The Last Supper" -- were among the dozens of paintings he left behind.

His sketches, however, numbered in the thousands.

In his drawings, he imagined designs for creations that would allow humans to walk on water and under the sea, soar above the Earth and even change how they fought wars.

It's those designs and contraptions that are the focus of "Leonardo da Vinci: Man, Inventor, Genius," a new exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry that opened Friday.

"He is the very spirit of inventive genius that this museum looks to inspire people with," said John Beckman, the museum's manager of temporary exhibits.

Many of Da Vinci's creations did not get built in his lifetime -- they were either impractical or impossible based on the technological expertise of the day. But 60 wooden models in the show, made by a father and son team in Florence, manage to give viewers an inside look at the mind of the ultimate Renaissance man. Many will look very familiar to contemporary eyes.

His underwater breathing device, a predecessor to scuba gear, consisted of animal skins that would serve as a sack around the swimmer's head, connected to a tube to the surface.

The helicopter owes a debt to Da Vinci's "air screw," while he also envisioned parachutes, hang gliders, paddle boats and bike chains that look remarkably similar to models used today.

He even envisioned a turtle shell-shaped tank that would shield eight soldiers inside while allowing them to fire at the enemy from cannons around the shell's ring. The tank, like some of Da Vinci's other sketches, was an improvement of an existing design.

Another example is his addition of a locking function to the catapult when previously a soldier had to hold a lever to keep the weapon from firing too early. Two life-size models in the exhibit will let museum visitors fire foam balls across the huge main gallery, which is designed to look like a Renaissance workshop.

Many of Da Vinci's designs had a military function because they were commissioned by patrons, Beckman said. Perhaps his most gruesome creation was "a reaping wagon" pulled by a horse and featuring rotating blades that would cut off the legs of anyone unfortunate enough to be within its reach. Diagrams for the machine are on display.

The exhibit features just one original Da Vinci sketch -- a piece on loan from a private collection known as "The Theatre Sheet" on which he worked out possibilities for a staging of the play "Orpheus" in Milan.

Using pen, pencil and crayon, Da Vinci made studies for a contraption (which was actually used during performances) that allowed the god of the underworld, Pluto, to rise from under the stage. Alongside the sketches and on the back of the page are Da Vinci's notes -- in the backward script he favored -- on the unrelated subjects of hydraulics and the law of dynamics.

But though just one sketch is on view, the exhibit provides several ways for visitors to interact with Da Vinci's drawings.

At computer stations resembling easels, visitors can try to build Da Vinci's machines using components from his sketches.

At another display, visitors can immerse themselves in 100 pages from the notebook known as the "Codex Atlanticus" that an Italian company was allowed to scan using high-resolution technology. Visitors can zoom in on sketches to see Da Vinci's notes or details or prompt the inventions to be turned into moving, 3-D displays.

A small section of the exhibit will be devoted to research and theories on the enduring myths and mysteries of Da Vinci, such as why did he write backward, who was Mona Lisa and -- most current -- exactly what in the blockbuster novel "The Da Vinci Code" is really accurate?

Beckman said he hopes the book and the upcoming movie inspire people to come see the exhibit and learn more about Da Vinci.

As an out-of-wedlock child born in 1452, he did not take the name of his father and was instead known as Leonardo "from Vinci" or "da Vinci." He never received a formal education, yet became one of history's most enduring figures "who has enough mystery in his background to inspire the stories in the book," Beckman said.

The final portion of the exhibit is devoted to "Modern-Day Leonardos." Some are working on inventions that appear as fantastical as Da Vinci's "flying machines" did in his lifetime -- such as a physicist leading a project to develop an elevator that could transport people and supplies to space over a thin cable.

"These are all people who are thinking way outside the box," Beckman said. "Leonardo invented the box, and these people are really pushing the edges of it in everything they do."

The exhibit will be on display through Sept. 4. It will not tour.

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