The Vision of Leonardo

Leonardo da Vinci: Scientist, Inventor, Artist 1997, and the Singapore Art Museum,October 3, 1997-February 1, 1998.

an exhibition at the Museum of Science, Boston, March 3-September 1,, Catalog of the exhibition edited by Otto Letze and Thomas Buchsteiner
Gerd Hatje/Distributed Art Publishers, 224 pp., $35.00

Leonardo da Vinci was convinced of the power of vision as an instrument of knowledge. He felt that it was above all through our eyes that we grasp and understand the world, that visual representation is the primary method of recording knowledge, and, most importantly, that such knowledge enables us to master and control our environment. The Scholastic tradition of the later Middle Ages gave a privileged status to abstraction, the manipulation of concepts. By giving priority to experience—especially visual experience—and experimentation, Leonardo announced a new era in Western culture. Between the sixteenth century and the nineteenth, the development of science was intimately linked to vision, because the visible could efficiently be recorded. We can estimate a person’s temperature by touching his forehead, but the mercury in the thermometer makes the temperature visible and consequently measurable.

Leonardo, the ultimate “Renaissance man,” is on the one hand a figure of popular legends—the ancestor of air travel who dreamed up flying machines, and the painter of the Mona Lisa, an image familiar to millions of people who have no idea when the Renaissance was or, for that matter, why the picture is so special. The crude, sometimes even diagrammatic reproductions found everywhere convey almost nothing of the spatial complexity and the atmosphere that made the art of Leonardo revolutionary. On the other hand, historians see him as a pivotal artist and a true pioneer of modern science, whose paintings, drawings, and notes pose complex intellectual problems that still defy explanation.

This summer the Museum of Science in Boston presented an exhibition designed to reconcile the popular and the learned view by giving greater precision and depth to the various aspects of Leonardo’s genius. The show, entitled “Leonardo da Vinci: Scientist, Inventor, Artist,” grew more complex during its itinerary, which began in Malmö, Sweden, where it was specifically concerned with Leonardo’s studies of bridges. After several stops in Germany and Austria, the show’s most elaborate version went on view in Boston, and it will soon open in Singapore. Sponsored by Mercedes-Benz and a Swiss watch company, it has been accompanied by a catalog prepared for the German version which only partially corresponds to what we saw in Boston; it has, however, catalog entries for most of the works of art exhibited.

In Boston the exhibition began with a general introduction to Leonardo’s life on video; it then led to rooms that displayed a few objects, such as early printed books and room furnishings, intended to evoke a Renaissance setting, as well as facsimile reproductions of Leonardo’s drawings and manuscripts, and models made from his designs. These exhibits were interspersed with consoles where the visi-tor could use interactive audio-visual equipment to explore various aspects of Leonardo’s work. A special room was devoted to actual works of art—the most questionable part of the exhibition.

Most spectacularly, perhaps, in the main space of the museum we could see a birdlike flying machine, built according to Leonardo’s specifications, next to a recent man-powered flying contraption that…

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