Skip to content

By Roger Highfield on

Leonardo’s great monuments of the human mind

Roger Highfield reflects on the opening of a new exhibition
Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius © Science Museum
Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius © Science Museum

The ‘extraordinary achievements’ of Leonardo da Vinci can be regarded as ‘great monuments of the human mind’, according to Martin Kemp, distinguished Emeritus Research Professor in the History of Art at Oxford University, at the launch yesterday of the Science Museum’s latest exhibition.

Kemp has spent a lifetime meditating on imagery in art and science from the Renaissance to the present day, writing books and curating art exhibitions on the great polymath. Despite the many legends that surround Leonardo, Kemp said that “the reality beneath the stories is no less exciting, as the Science Museum’s new exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius makes abundantly clear”.

Last night the formal opening of the exhibition was attended by around 400 people, including Paul Kahn, UK President, Airbus Group; Professor Sir Christopher Frayling, British educationalist and writer; Carole Souter, Chief Executive of the Heritage Lottery Fund; Sir Peter Bazalgette, Chair of Arts Council England; Sir Vernon Ellis, Chairman of the British Council; Anthony Geffen, CEO of Atlantic Productions; Professor Frank James of the Royal Institution; and Dame Mary Archer, Chair of the museum’s Board of Trustees.

Although it is harder to categorise Leonardo’s genius than many realise, it took centuries for his engineering skills to be as widely appreciated as his artistic skills. Leonardo’s thought processes lay hidden after his death in 1519, aged 67, when his manuscripts and collections were inherited by his apprentice and friend, Francesco Melzi.

On the instructions of Leonardo, Melzi had produced a Treatise on Painting which was published in 1651 and thought to be authoritative until the 19th century, when scholars realized it did not capture many of the insights held in his notes. Kemp described how these drawings show how Leonardo ‘visualised machines with a brilliance that no one else had ever done, and drew them with a presence and potency that no one else had ever done”.

These ‘thrilling’ works show how, more than his contemporaries, Leonardo was capable of creating what Kemp called ‘mental sculpture,’ visualising motions in different planes, as moving three dimensional objects. ‘No one quite drew machines quite like Leonardo did.’

Leonardo devised graphical techniques to show the components – ‘elementi’ – of machines, such as screws, gears and springs, and how they worked together in kinetic sculptures. In particular, his Madrid Codices manuscripts, discovered in the Biblioteca Nacional de España in Madrid in the sixties, provide what Kemp called ‘ooo ahh’ examples of Leonardo’s machines.

Leonardo did not just study birds and bats to imitate nature, which he regarded as design optimised to perfection, but tried to understand it from the basics, for instance the lift generated by a wing, so that he could ‘then act as a second nature, inventingthings that nature didn’t invent’. In this way, said Kemp, ‘you could create an infinite world of possibilities.’ The theme of remaking nature influenced Leonardo’s works of art too, such as the Mona Lisa.

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group, and Professor Martin Kemp at the launch of Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius © Science Museum
Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group, and Professor Martin Kemp at the launch of Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius © Science Museum

In the Science Museum exhibition, you can see many of Leonardo’s drawings made real, using 39  models that were first made in Milan in 1952 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s birth. ‘Having these machines from Milan here is absolutely terrific,’ said Kemp.

Among the other near life-sized models are a pyramid-shaped parachute; a floating siege weapon for crossing moats, and a crossbow measuring almost three metres across. There’s also his flying version of the ‘Archimedean screw’ that has been used since ancient times to draw up water: many call it a helicopter but Kemp pointed out that it was supposed to ‘revolve furiously’ so it was designed to transport the imagination with entertaining possibilities more than with a pilot in mind. And you can also see Leonardo’s ‘little bit crazy’ ideas for stage designs too, added Kemp.

The legacy of Leonardo’s interest in the inspiration of nature lives on in fields such as biomimicry, where scientists try to solve problems such as flight by looking at how solutions have evolved in living creatures over many millions of years. We are still in thrall to what Kemp called the ‘evolutionary magic of natural design.’ The exhibition, which is supported by Airbus, also considers the influence today of biomimicry by exploring the iterations of his research in modern robotics and aeronautics, such as the wing rib of an Airbus A380 inspired by the wing of an eagle.

Leonardo’s reputation as an inventor grew in 1952, on the 500th anniversary of his birth, with a major exhibition in London and Kemp paid tribute to the role in this earlier exhibition of the Science Museum, which has been described in the Science Museum Group Journal by Jim Bennett, who curated the small introductory display which commemorates this earlier exhibition.

Though at the instigation of Mr Gilbert, a curator of the Science Museum,  the quincentenary exhibition was held at the Royal Academy because it was thought a more appropriate venue: while Leonardo’s drawing of the ideally-proportioned Vitruvian man went on to inspire the first Italian-language version of Vitruvius’ De architectura, and he influenced future painters through his contribution to what is called the Maniera Moderna (modern style), his drawings of machines did not directly influence the history of science and engineering.

Yet Leonardo was as fertile and great an inventor as Watt, whose workshop can be seen in the museum too, argued Kemp, referring to how he saw the Science Museum as a ‘kind of paradise’ when he visited as a child. This and the two anniversary exhibitions in the 1950s provide a ‘historic connection’ to the one now in the museum.

In the 1950s, Leonardo was seen as the isolated genius who invented everything from refrigerators to planes to whatever, said Kemp. But today we realise many of his more plausible devices are copies of the machines that he saw emerging as the Renaissance revolution unfolded around him. Leonardo was clearly working towards a treatise of visionary machines, such as the ‘tank scuttling across a battlefield’, intended as ‘visual boasting’ to impress potential patrons, said Kemp.

Today Leonardo’s work retains the power to inspire, says Paul Kahn, UK President, Airbus Group. “Encouraging young people to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and maths is a key priority for companies like Airbus.” He added that the Science Museum had a key role to play in this respect.

Kahn praised the ‘fantastic exhibition’ that shows the “true artistry behind engineering…just imagine what he could have done with our R and D budget today.”

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, told the audience at how a recent visit to India had brought home to him how Leonardo is a “figure of a global importance”. Moreover, the exhibition was curated, designed and produced by two of the Science Museum’s closest collaborators in Europe -Cité des Sciences, a Universcience site, represented last night by director Bruno Maquart, and the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci, represented by General Director Professor Fiorenzo Galli.

He also thanked Airbus Group and the players of the People’s Postcode Lottery for their support.

Above all else, said Blatchford, the work of Leonardo underlines ‘the great unity of art and science’.

Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius runs until 4 September and was previewed by The Daily Telegraph with the remark that it is ‘expected to be one of the most popular exhibitions of 2016’.

Tickets are on sale now.

One comment on “Leonardo’s great monuments of the human mind

  1. My daughter and I visited the da Vinci exhibition today (10th Feb) and I for one was grossly disappointed with the scant show, tucked away in the basement,I think the shop was bigger? Some of the exhibits were, I read from a previous exhibition in 1952, the models were too small and too far away to really appreciate his genius, I saw a similar exhibition in Rome which had more and varied models and was a fraction of the cost. The Science Museums prices far outweigh the content.
    As I am registered deaf there are few facilities for our disability with very brief descriptions of models,

Comments are closed.