Da Vinci’s Flying Machines Take Wing in D.C.

Posted June 18, 2010 at 5:45pm

It’s not easy to put together a traveling museum exhibition about Leonardo da Vinci.

Sure, da Vinci is among the most famous people who ever lived, a man whose eclectic array of accomplishments — he was an artist, anatomist, inventor, musician and architect — have been praised for centuries.

But that’s what makes things so hard.

Museums that own da Vinci artifacts aren’t exactly dying to loan them out; the Louvre isn’t going to let just anybody handle the “Mona Lisa,” after all. Plus, with such a dynamic subject as da Vinci, where do you even begin?

The National Geographic Museum is hosting what might be the best effort to bring da Vinci to the masses with “Da Vinci — The Genius,” which studies the original Renaissance man’s many innovations.

The exhibition offers a look at the breadth of da Vinci’s talents, the highlight being constructed models of his many scientific ideas and inventions using designs taken directly from his personal codices.

While only 6,000 of the original 24,000 pages that da Vinci originally penned remain intact, the subjects included in them are incredibly rich. (Two of those original journals are displayed in the exhibition.)

Da Vinci’s blueprints were so accurate that Italian artisans were able to bring many of his designs to life, some for the very first time. Doing so required more than woodworking skills, however. Da Vinci, famously paranoid about protecting his ideas, wrote many of his notes as mirror images and often included deliberate mistakes in his designs to confuse potential thieves. Plus, he wrote everything in an old Florentine dialect.

But once the artisans mastered all things da Vinci, his creations finally came off the page, and many of them are strikingly similar to modern technology.

Take Aliante, a glider-like invention that da Vinci designed in his bid to bring about human flight. While he eventually abandoned the effort after he figured out people lack the muscle mass to fly, the creation echoes today’s gliders and even airplanes.

Or there’s Scafandro, da Vinci’s idea for scuba diving equipment. Divers would wear a watertight leather tunic, reinforced by armor to protect the air bag that they would carry. Hoses would float up to the surface of the water, supported by a floating cork that would serve as a buoy.

Da Vinci also had a design for a parachute, consisting of wooden poles arranged in a pyramid and surrounded by cloth.

In 2000, a British man actually created his own replica of the chute — using only materials available during da Vinci’s time — and jumped out of a hot air balloon at 9,800 feet. It went well, although the man cut himself free at 2,800 feet and used a modern chute, as the materials for da Vinci’s creation would have crushed him.

Although da Vinci the inventor is the focus of the exhibit, attention is also paid to his work as an artist. While the Louvre might not have loaned out the “Mona Lisa,” her 500-plus year history is highlighted, including secrets that only recently have been discovered.

French photographer Pascal Cotte, who invented the first multispectral camera, was allowed to spend three hours snapping high-definition photos of the painting, with the goal of finding things not visible to the naked eye.

Cotte uncovered 25 secrets, including evidence that the yellow, darkened “Mona Lisa” that we know today was originally created with much more vibrant, fresh-looking colors. (Hey, give the girl a break — she is more than 500 years old, after all.)

And while the “Mona Lisa” is famous for having no eyebrows, Cotte discovered a single brush stroke over her left eye, evidence that Da Vinci originally gave her eyebrows. Experts now theorize the brows simply disappeared over time, a victim to the age of the painting or because of the materials used to clean it.

“Da Vinci — The Genius” runs through Sept. 12 at the National Geographic Museum.