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Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius at the Science Museum

28 February 2016 | Lydia Cooper

The Science Museum’s new exhibition focuses on Leonardo da Vinci’s mechanical drawings, putting theory into practice with a display of models related to his inventions. It highlights the complex workings of his mind, as well as the contemporary concerns of his age, from the desire to create terrifying war machines to the possibility of an underwater breathing apparatus.

Leonardo da Vinci is world-famous for his art, and his feats of engineering have only been truly recognised since the late nineteenth century, when his drawings of flight and underwater exploration were rediscovered after being left with an apprentice after his death. Recent shows of his work have included the National Gallery’s blockbuster Painter at the Court of Milan and the V&A’s Experience, Experiment and Design. As well as a versatile artist and engineer, the polymath is also remembered as a philosopher and early champion of vegetarianism, as well as a genius whose vision extended beyond his own age.

The new Science Museum exhibition shows the mechanics of his mind, a fascinating working process, and includes various models of his technical drawings. There are 39 wooden models that were first built in Milan in 1952, accompanied by nine smaller models built in Britain in the same year for a show at the RA, the first to acknowledge that Leonardo’s work bridged the division between art and science. The British models commissioned in 1952 deliberately veered from previous precedent: Mussolini had commissioned large models for a show in Milan in 1939, but the Science Museum instructed its designers to avoid this example and aim for accuracy rather than grand spectacle. The present show recognises that perceptions of Leonardo have changed since 1952, when he was considered a lone innovator. Yet descriptions of what visitors were told of the models in 1952, which accompany the models and the 2016 explanations, prove fascinating. There are plenty of interactive machines that provide the opportunity to learn about Leonardo’s life and work, which will doubtlessly excite children visiting the exhibition.

Leonardo’s work is divided into loose sections - his early drawings, the art of war, biomimicry, flight, the unification of knowledge - but all of these are interlinked, as they are inextricably bound up with his working process, his mechanical theories and his historical context. We can see his precise mathematical calculations; in a design for a ‘crane for excavating canals’, he specifies that the counterweight needed to raise the box is ‘equivalent to an ox and two men’.

 

The ‘lone innovator’ myth

The Science Museum’s exhibition dispels myths about Leonardo from the outset: the idea that his engineering feats were the work of an isolated genius is shattered by the giant model of Filippo Brunelleschi’s revolving crane, which sits right outside the show. The model demonstrates that there were a number of skilled engineers in Renaissance Italy at the time, and it is suggested that Brunelleschi’s work influenced Leonardo: when Brunelleschi’s bronze ball was installed in the dome of the Santa Maria del Flore in Florence, Leonardo was one of the young apprentices involved in this operation. Martin Kemp, a Leonardo expert and the Emeritus Research Professor in the History of Art at Oxford, points out that whilst other contemporary engineers are not big names now, they were very sought-after at the time, and it is important to place Leonardo within this tradition and context. This has been demonstrated before in the Science Museum’s 1999 - 2000 exhibition The Art of Invention: Leonardo and Renaissance Engineers, a show that toured the world and drew attention to the number of Renaissance engineers creating fantastical and practical machines.

 

Fantasy, escapism, and self-presentation

There is an interesting element of self-presentation in these designs, and Martin Kemp points out that some were designed for show, to demonstrate the engineer’s scope: for example, Leonardo’s well-known helicopter was actually designed for courtly entertainment. Similarly, Leonardo knew the tank he designed was ‘a fantasia, a visual calling-card, pretty and exciting, not practical’, says Kemp. The visual boasting was an essential part of showing off to potential patrons. The role of engineers at court included elaborate planning for masques, shows and performances, and this quality of self-aggrandisation, the need to prove that you were the most innovative and entertaining designer, is ubiquitous in the period.  A reproduction of what one of Leonardo’s masque designs might have looked like calls to mind the intricate masque designs of Inigo Jones a century later.

 

The art of war

A section on the art of war, an enduring preoccupation for fifteenth century engineers, is linked with Leonardo’s own history and practice. We discover that in order to work for the ruling Sforza family and the Duke of Milan, Leonardo had to emphasise the military aspect of his engineering skills, as this martial prowess was what made designers useful to powerful families. During his first stay in Milan, he worked on multiple designs for fortifications and weapons, and his later residency as an architect with Cesare Borgia is marked by his work on the impact of projectiles and the science of strengthening fortifications.  Objects include designs for a flanking tower to fortify a castle; a siege tower with a covered bridge; a cannon mounted on a rotating platform; an armoured vehicle. A horse-drawn chariot with rotating scythes, which appears in numerous drawings by Leonardo, looks formidable and powerful, until we read that such a chariot could be easily disabled by throwing traps with projecting iron spikes.

 

Model of an armoured vehicle, courtesy Archivio Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci, © Alessandro Nassiri

 

Unifying nature, art and science

The fixation on military innovation in this period is also linked with the desire to conquer the elements: many military engineers tried to design devices for breathing underwater or flying in the air.

A leather diving suit is designed with underwater attacks and the sabotage of enemy ships in mind: the suit has a small pouch for the diver to urinate into, and a sealed leather bag which would act as a valve, inflating to allow the diver to rise to the surface. The design even includes two sandbags the diver could clutch in order to sink. A spiky webbed glove and an individual breathing apparatus are similarly accompanied by a note that suggests they could be used for ‘escaping a tempest or shipwreck at sea’.

In the case of Leonardo, it shows his unique ability to map nature’s work onto man-made creations. As Kemp points out, ‘You could create an infinite world of possibilities if you knew how nature operated.’

Nevertheless, Leonardo did acknowledge nature’s unsurpassable power in Quaderni d’anatomia, writing that although human inventions could be subtle, they could never ‘devise an invention more beautiful, more simple or more direct than...nature’. The Science Museum’s exhibition uses Leonardo’s fascination with applying the principles of nature to invention to draw clever parallels with the modern age, exploring other uses of biomimicry in current technological research (such as robots that can use navigational sonar like electrical eels).

 

The impulse to fly

Throughout history humans have been obsessed with the idea of flight, from Daedalus to Wēland the Smith, Eilmer of Malmesbury to Albrecht Berblinger, the Montgolfiers to the Wright brothers. The exhibition displays some of Leonardo’s designs and reproductions of them, including man-powered machines, gliding flight devices, a parachute and an ornithopter. It demonstrates that Leonardo’s flight models were rational but not scientifically possible, as the historian David Wragg has pointed out. We learn that Leonardo studied bird flight to calculate the principles of aerodynamics, in the same way that he relied on the principles of nature to inform his other inventions. Martin Kemp adds that Leonardo was aware his ornithopter could never fly because of the power required to lift such a weight: as a result, he switched to designing forerunners of the hang-glider.

 

As a cohesive display, the Science Museum’s exhibition presents a fascinating insight into Leonardo da Vinci’s mind. Some of the simplest designs are the most appealing: his design of a machine that twists ropes together in order to form a more resilient rope reminds us of his pragmatic approach to work. Leonardo died in 1519 and it is probable that in 2019, on the five hundredth anniversary of his death, we will welcome more exhibitions dedicated to him. In the meantime, the Science Museum is an excellent place to start, particularly as the design of the exhibition will appeal to all, from young aspiring inventors to adults interested in Leonardo’s work in practice.

Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius is at the Science Museum until 4 September 2016. Tickets are £10 (£8 conc.).

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