daVinci at The Museum of Science and Industry - daVinci's Real Code

daVinci's Challenge

Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry has added a blockbuster to this summer's Chicago attractions. Although the Museum denies capitalizing on the renewed interest in Leonardo da Vinci stemming from the recent film, it happily takes advantage of the timely connection to its new exhibit, "Leonardo da Vinci: Man, Inventor, Genius", celebrating da Vinci's engineering and scientific genius. The exhibit will not travel to any other museum. It will remain open until September 4, 2006. By itself, it is a good reason to visit Chicago.

Inspired by birds in flight-glider

The exhibit, which is set in a series of open, low-ceilinged, connected rooms, begins with an eight-minute film giving the viewer the Italian Renaissance context and a few of the facts of da Vinci's life. A clear timeline connecting European events (Gutenberg, the Plague, the French invasion of Milan) to events in da Vinci's life dominates the entry to the exhibit proper.

Before the airplane

The first rooms are filled with wooden models (many interactive), built from drawings in da Vinci's coded notebooks. The models, built in Italy, have never been displayed in the United States. Panels on the walls show the drawings, describe the models, detail their possible uses, and tell which were successful. Almost every panel ends with a connection to modern life ('Look around the city. What kinds of cranes do you see?') or an intriguing question (after a section on flight, 'Do you think you could move your head, arms and legs in different directions all at the same time?')

air screw lead to the helicopter

These 'useful' ideas are followed by sometimes frightening models of da Vinci's inventions and variations of machines of war (a model of a tank, a catapult, a vicious chariot with scythe blades that revolved around the chariot to cut enemy soldiers in two!). While this part of the exhibit opens with a quote that demonstrates he was well aware of the effects of war, da Vinci clearly was able to adapt his engineering genius to his patrons' needs for material.

Gear shift

The third room opens up to a high-ceilinged space full of bright light, noise, and color. Visitors of all ages get to operate two working catapults, explore 3-D models and pictures of da Vinci's engineering ideas on computers, examine a revolving eight-foot high model of the head of the famous horse da Vinci created for his patron, Ludovico Sforza, but never was able to caste in bronze, and walk across a bridge, waving their arms in a very odd-looking simulation of attempted flight.

Drawings for stage set with elevator

There are two remaining parts to the exhibit. One, again on panels, brings up some of the stories surrounding da Vinci, such as his involvement with the mysterious Shroud of Turin, who Mona Lisa really is, and yes an amusing link to " The Da Vinci Code". This is followed by an extensive section on modern architects, engineers, performance artists, mathematicians and more who are aware of and often employ da Vinci's ideas. Visitors see their works on plasma TVs, mini-computer screens, on film, and in photographs.

The catapult

Quietly displayed behind thick plastic, there is a large sheet of rough creamy paper with brown and black inks, the style of writing and drawing now familiar from the panels. This is an actual sheet from the" Codex Atlanticus" notebook, lent to the Museum of Science and Industry by a private collector in Europe, and displayed for the first time in the United States. In the middle of the models and the chaos of the interactive exhibits in the central, large open room, visitors are suddenly reminded that the notes and drawings are not just part of a modern show in a modern museum. They are real, come from real notebooks, were made by a real person. Viewers bend to look at the paper as closely as they can, examining the drawings of the world's first stage elevator, invented for the production of Angelo Politan's play, " Orpheus", and trying to read the mirror-handwriting notes da Vinci made as he prepared for another of his many occupations, staging a play for the governor of Milan.

Workshop with Sforza horse

In the end, one walks out of the exhibit overwhelmed by the genius of this Renaissance man who drew and wrote thousands of ideas in his notebooks and made many of them come to life in his own time, who somehow foresaw the future as day after day he involved himself deeply in observing life and connected what he saw to what could be, and who developed ideas that continue to affect us in our own time.

Model of Norwegian Leonardo Bridge Project by vebja rn Sand-first of Leonardo's civil engineering designs for public use. www.veborn-sand.com/thebridge

The Museum of Science and Industry is located at: 57th Street and Lake Shore Drive, Chicago.
Phone: 773-684-1414.
Museum hours during the exhibit are: Monday Saturday 9:30 am 5:30 pm Sunday 11 a.m. 5:30 pm

Photos-Museum of Science and Industry, Scott Brownell
Bridge-Gloria Henllan-Jones

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