Leonardo da Vinci: Still a Genius 500 Years Later

Culture Watch
tags: art history, da Vinci

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

This summer marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Italian painter, scientist, inventor and architect Leonardo da Vinci. If you mention his name to most people they will say, rather quickly, “the Mona Lisa” or “the Last Supper.”  They are two of the most impressive works in world art history, but da Vinci was far more of an artistic force than just two paintings. He was the man who invented the primitive bicycle, the tank, the machine gun, the airplane and all sorts of machines that made life easier for people. He also put together 16,000 thousand pages of notes and illustrations in large, thick notebooks. You needed an invention? He had it, or could quickly produce it.


Many of the world’s most prominent museums are showing exhibits of his work this summer, whether the mammoth Metropolitan Museum in New York or the smaller Berkshire Museum, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. There are many exhibits of da Vinci’s work in museums in London, England, Milan, Florence and Turin in Italy, Poland, Germany, Scotland and other nations.


The exhibits about da Vinci, who was born in 1452 and died in 1519, offer a rare and breathtaking look at the artistry of the great man, cover his life and times and offer some intriguing information about him. As an example, he suffered from strabismus, a permanent disease of the eyes that threw his vision slightly out of line. The benefit, though, was that it enabled him to “see” three dimensional foundations for his work and permitted him to produce three dimensional drawings and designs that no one else could.


He was an ethereal artist, to be sure, but he was also a shrewd businessman. As a young man he realized that the Italian states of Venice, Tuscany, Milan and others were frequently attacked by other nations. He plunged into efforts to design weapons and transports for the military. He designed a tank with four wheels propelled by men inside the tank who also used levers and triggers to fire weapons at the enemy (the tank was not actually used until World War I, 400 years later). He designed the mobile machine gun, a small, three-foot-high machine on wheels that was moved about quickly in a battle. Numerous eight or nine “guns,” or barrels, were mounted on it for rapidly firing. It was deadly. He was told that the biggest problem armies had was crossing rivers and so he designed temporary bridges made out of fallen trees set up like the vaulted ceilings of domes in which the trees, leaning on top of each other, offered the support that pillars normally would provide. The bridge could be constructed quickly and taken down just as quickly.


The Berkshire Museum, in Pittsfield, has a large and impressive exhibition called “Leonardo da Vinci: Machines in Motion,” produced by the Da Vinci Museum, in Florence, Italy, and loaned to it.


Da Vinci always believed that what we thought was true was not necessarily true. “All our knowledge had its origins in our perceptions,” he often said.


He proved that with his machines, as shown in the Berkshire exhibit. He used the “worm screw,” a long wooden screw that could be turned easily by levers and wheels. His screws were made to lift huge weights easily. He designed rotary screws that could be manipulated by hand and mesh with other screws or gears to move weights. In the Berkshire exhibit is the “double crane’ that da Vinci invented. People used one side of the crane to lift up things and the other to drop them down to street level. Both could be used at the same time and operated by just one or two people. He even invented a machine for blacksmiths so they could use it quite easily to pound down iron with a hammer without using their arms or hands at all. He invented a printing press just 40 years after Guttenberg’s; his could be run by just one man. 


What were some of his most popular inventions? Well, first and foremost, the bicycle. Da Vinci built a wooden bike that operated just like those of today. The day I was at the exhibit, kids flocked to it.


“Hey dad, I didn’t know they had bikes back then!” screamed one child.


The Berkshire Museum has weekly days on which kids can participate in hands on Da Vinci play sessions with their own drawings


The Berkshire Museum exhibit sprawls over the entire second floor of the building and a gallery on the first. It is spacious. There are two large video screens on which you see examples of his art and his life story. They add a nice touch to the exhibit and carry da Vinci from the 15th century to the 21st.


Da Vinci worked during the Italian Renaissance, called the age of discovery, and people were eager for his inventions. City and state governments supported his work and he became friends with wealthy and powerful people.


Some museum exhibits are more compressed than the Berkshire Museum’s but elegant, such as the one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. The curators there decided not to stage a large exhibit of the artists/inventor’s work, but instead showcase one famous painting. They chose Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness, an unfinished masterpiece started in 1485 and about 85% complete. The painting is in its one gallery with religious music playing all day. That gallery is set inside of a larger gallery of religious paintings, sculpture and artifacts to give the exhibit a very religious feel.


The Met exhibit, that drew quite a crowd when I was there, sets off Saint Jerome by himself, surrounded by black walls for effect. It is impressive. The curators urge you to study the painting to see how da Vinci worked. As an example, there is the outline of a lion at the bottom right of the painting that needs to be completed. There are also fingerprints on the top of the painting where Leonardo tried to smooth out paint with his gnarly fingers


Max Hollien, director of the Met, said that the work “provides an intimate glimpse into the mind of a towering figure of western art.”


The New York exhibit shows that da Vinci did not paint in a very careful way, working on some parts for weeks and then jumping to other parts. He sketched out few final portrait drafts and tended to approach his work in an uninhibited way.


So, the next time you sit back in an airplane you can than Leonardo.


The Berkshire Museum exhibit is on display until September 8. The Met Museum exhibit is on display continues to October 6.

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