I’m all for procrastination, so when I saw that Otago Museum (just across the road from my university’s Central Library) was hosting a travelling exhibition on “The da Vinci Machines”, it didn’t take very long for me to find an excuse to ditch the assignment I was working on (due in the next day, naturally) in favour of a little hands-on learning.
Probably best known for his artwork – especially his paintings – Leonardo da Vinci was also a skilled and eclectic inventor. He is quite well known for his interest in flight – models and drawings of helicopters and hang-gliders are in the exhibition – but also included are his lesser-known technological interests: for example, the worm-threaded jack, ball bearings, tanks, hydraulics, under-water equipment, and various types of bridges. Interestingly, in 2006 the Turkish government decided to resurrect da Vinci’s 1502 plan for a bridge across the mouth of the Bosporus – previously, his designs were thought impossible. While it’s true that some of da Vinci’s inventions are impractical, there are some that have been shown to work, and the fascination with his instruments remains.
In 1995, a team of academics, historians and scientists got together with a group of Florentine artisans (Teknoart) to recreate life-size and scale models of da Vinci’s inventions. The results were so successful that the family leading the reconstructions – the Niccolai firm – were given the national award “Italia che Lavora” (Italy at Work). Over the past decade, over sixty of these machines – along with informative panels, artwork, and a documentary – have toured the world’s museums.
It’s not a completely hands-on exhibition, but large amounts of the machines are able to be played with or operated – in fact, visitors are positively invited to do so. One of the favourites I saw being used was a giant mirrored box, where you can see endless visions of yourself fading into eternity like some hideous nightmare of “What Not To Wear”. Leave the kids at the big bridge made out of sticks, and let them try building their own miniature version – although, my visit makes me think the kids will have to be pretty quick off the mark to be able to steal the models off Dad. There were an awful lot of men squatting in the centre of the floor, trying to build their own bridges! So naturally, I got down and gave it a go as well (it went much easier with two pairs of hands).
My favourite was the automatic reaping machine. Ostensibly a horse-drawn cart, the cart included four wheeling scythes to cut down the wheat as it moved through the fields. I don’t know how successful such a machine would be, but there seemed such a possibility of mayhem and destruction that this interesting invention moved to the top of my list of da Vinci technology!
Tacky and populist as I am, I couldn’t help but hope to see the codex described in Dan Brown’s The da Vinci Code. For those who haven’t read this piece of best-selling escapism, the codex is a cylindrical container used for transporting secret message. You can access the message by cracking the code on the outside of the cylinder. Admittedly, Brown’s characters took an unconscionable time to do this, but you don’t need to be as thick as they were to appreciate the genius of the device. Alas, it is not included in the exhibition. There is, however, a few reproductions of da Vinci’s famous artwork, including The Last Supper, which was surrounded by a group of elderly women completely ignoring the nearby model of the tank in order to argue about whether Mary Magdalene was present in the painting or not. Thank-you, Mr Brown.
This was a much better way to spend an afternoon than doing an assignment. The exhibit is set up sensibly, with each invention clearly labelled and explained. da Vinci’s own drawings are used to illustrate the intention of the inventor, and similar machines are grouped together so that the differences in design between flying machines or ball bearings or bridges was easy to grasp. The documentary was close to an hour in length, although it was more of a biography than a focussed exploration of his inventions. Visually, this was supplemented with a rotating catalogue of revolving computer graphics placed around the exhibition, showing how each machine was put together and how it was supposed to work. It’s a very well-put together exhibition, and suitable for everyone. One of the most enjoyable things about going was seeing entire family groups (often spanning three generations) all completely engrossed in the machines on offer.
If this exhibition comes to your local science museum, I strongly suggest you go take a look… if only to have a go, like the Turks, at building Leonardo’s bridge.