Leonardo do Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius

Leonardo da Vinci needs no introduction. The Science Museum in London hosted the exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius”, and brought

Studio Drift at the Stedelijk Museum  
Landscapes: John Berger on Art

Leonardo da Vinci needs no introduction. The Science Museum in London hosted the exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius”, and brought to life his expertise in various fields to life by constructing scale models of the various inventions and designs he created in his notebooks, alongside images of the original notebooks. Even for the da Vinci aficionado this exhibition is an eye-opener because of the variety of da Vinci’s work brought to life.

The start of the exhibition is actually a surprise. Rather than starting with his famous attempts on designing flying machines, or his artistic endeavours, one encounters the 16th century version of Tony Stark, the weapons designer from the ranks of Marvel Comics. One of the first items on display is a model version of a gargantuan crossbow. Standing upright, the crossbow is designed to propel fireballs at enemy ranks. The scale of the design is immediately apparent with six sets of wheels to transport the giant crossbow into battle. The sketches also show how the crossbow was to be loaded and fired.

The crossbow was followed by a design for a spring catapult which was designed to launch stones over a long range in order to open up breaches in the enemy’s defensive walls. My daughter’s favourite was the thirty-eight cannon artillery gun. There is a scale version of an early interpretation of a tank, manned by a gunner, and moved by six men.

Leonardo’s diving suit which has been displayed in a life size model, is accompanied by an example of his design for a breathing apparatus.  And despite the design of the flippers being based on duck feet, the suit is designed not for the study of aquatic life, but for the demolition of enemy ships. He completed the product by also designing a mechanical underwater drill to screw holes into the hulls of ships. 

There were inventions to scale fortresses; alongside these were fortress walls designed to prevent damage from aerial bombardment.

After encountering these weapons we walked into Leonardo’s vision for flight. He studied and drew extensively from nature. He took a particular interest in the mechanics of birds wings, which resulted in his vision for his flying machines. Leonardo’s design for his elegant flying machine was a source of awe for both adults and children alike. Several of his more famous flying machines were showcased in models at the exhibition, including his glider, and the aerial screw. Although usually described as a helicopter it is really an aerial version of an Archimedes’ screw. The machine probably couldn’t achieve flight, but its beautiful, iconic form is an inspiration for rotary-powered flight and remains one of Leonardo’s best-recognized designs.

One of the great aspects of the show is that the models have been constructed closer to what Leonardo had envisaged. The ability to see the models and their working components shows that Leanardo was brilliant not for his creativity, but for his ability to visualise solutions to problems using tools, processes and techniques used elsewhere. His weapons all used familiar tools of pulleys, levers, screws, wheels and arches but always in combination to create a potential solution for a problem, regardless of whether that problem came from the battlefield, or from the theatre. For my family, as we talked about the show afterwards, this was the biggest takeaway from the show.

The interactive displays and information engaged both adults and children. I went in expecting to be dazzled and came back with lots of food for thought. This exhibition is not be missed as it truly celebrates the polymath that Leonardo da Vinci really was.

‘Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius is at the Science Museum, London, from 10 February until 4 September 2016.’