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Despite being one of the most prolific creators of his time, few pieces of Leonardo da Vinci’s work exist outside private collections and permanent displays. Viewing most of his original creations requires a trip to Europe, where famous exhibits include only a handful of sketches or portraits. Renowned as a painter, sculptor, engineer, inventor, and anatomist, it is rare to see the scope and scale of his impact on so many areas of art and design. Beginning March 1 at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Leonardo da Vinci: 500 Years of Genius hopes to do just that.
This exhibit—created by Grande Exhibitions in partnership with Pascal Cotte, an engineer and art photographer, and Italian artisans—was developed to highlight Leonardo’s wide-ranging ideas, inventions, and artwork in a more comprehensive and accessible way. “The beauty of Leonardo is that there’s so much to display,” says Rob Kirk with Grande Exhibitions.
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Leonardo often began his artwork and innovations as rough sketches in the margins of notebooks—more than 6,000 pages of which remain today. These codices offer an opportunity to explore the mind of this polymath and were key to creating this unique DMNS exhibition, which brings to life the diagrams, machines, inventions, and artwork that they illustrate through real-life replicas and models that visitors can explore and interact with. “You’ll find there’s lots of different variations of exhibits that focus on his art, his designs or drawing, and inventions,” Kirk says. “We try to cover as many different topics as we can, because he’s had such a far-reaching influence on our society today.”
Leonardo is credited with inventing the helicopter, parachute, and military tank, even though most of his inventions were never built in his lifetime. “He had an amazing understanding of physics,” says Samantha Sands, DMNS educator and program specialist. “While some of his flying machines probably wouldn’t fly, he understood wings and the concept of how they could create lift.”
For this exhibit, more than 70 machines made for music, flight, and motion were constructed using 15th century technology and the designs of his codices. “About a dozen of these are fully working models,” explains Sands. “You can turn the crank or step into and engage with them.”
The exhibition will also feature an immersive room, called Sensory 4, which uses multisensory technology to project motion graphics and video recordings of Leonardo’s art, ideas, and musings on the walls and floors. “If we could step into his mind, this is probably what it would feel like,” says Sands. For further insight into the life and times of the Renaissance Man (and this time period), historical enactors playing the roles of characters who knew the artist are on-hand to answer questions and offer additional information.
Beyond Leonardo’s inventions and artwork, the exhibition will spotlight his study of anatomy, which started as support for his artistic training, but became an independent area of research over the course of his life. Leonardo’s drawings of muscular and skeletal structures, based on dissections, were kept private during his lifetime, but can be seen in his codices and represent a significant body of work. Museum visitors will have the opportunity to draw their own bodies using a piece of plexiglass and tools of perspective to turn their portraits into works of art.
Together with other replicas of Leonardo’s most famous paintings, the exclusive “Secrets to the Mona Lisa” is a major feature of this exhibition. Designed by Cotte, who spent several years taking multi-spectral scans of the “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre to expose the layers within the painting, this display is an analysis of Leonardo’s most iconic work. Through Cotte’s images, museum visitors will be able to see behind the brushstrokes of restoration work to earlier versions of the painting upon the canvas.
Billed as the most comprehensive exhibition of Leonardo’s work and life, the collection has traveled to several museums around the world, but the DMNS exhibit does feature some unique elements to make it more interactive. For one, museum staff, who spent about nine months working to bring the exhibit to Denver, have created an experiential workshop where visitors can explore different aspects of Leonardo’s art techniques, or build bridges and launch catapults across the room.
Though rooted in Leonardo’s musings from five centuries ago, the scope of engineering and exploration on display demonstrate the power of creativity, which is still relevant today. “By themselves, each achievement is really, really remarkable,” Sands says. “When we put them all together, you realize how fascinating it is that one person could have done all of these amazing things.”
If you go: Leonardo da Vinci: 500 Years of Genius runs through August 25. Reservations for this timed, surcharged exhibition are encouraged, and ticketing information can be found here.