NatGeo Opens Up Da Vinci’s Mind


If I say the name “Leonardo da Vinci,” what’s the first thing to pop into your mind? Most likely, thoughts of paintings such as the Mona Lisa or the Last Supper, or perhaps illustrations of his flying machine concepts. Maybe in some cases, the idea of a “Renaissance Man.” And you’d be right with all of those answers – but you’d also only be scratching the surface.

The National Geographic Museum’s latest exhibit, “Da Vinci-The Genius,” attempts to broaden that answer for you. This comprehensive traveling exhibition details the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci and will be on display from June 18 through September 12, 2010 and is made available by Grande Exhibitions, Fondazione Anthropos of Italy, and the French engineer Pascal Cotte.

“We have all heard of Leonardo da Vinci; most people think of him as the artist that painted the Mona Lisa, or maybe they heard he did flying machine drawings,” said National Geographic Museum Director Susan Norton. “But here, you can come to see full-sized models of what he designed in the 15th Century to address what he thought of as challenges, issues, and problems, and I think people will be fascinated when they come.”

She’s not wrong.


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The new exhibit resides in the space previously occupied by the Terra Cotta Warriors and is no less impressive. The gallery contains a full scope of da Vinci’s remarkable innovations as an inventor, artist, anatomist, sculptor, engineer, musician, and architect. Predominately scattered throughout the space are full-scale replicas of many of the inventions that da Vinci sketched out in his personal codices (notebooks), using only material that would have been available to him at the time. Ms. Norton indicated that evidence exists that most of his designs were not built by da Vinci, however, just conceived and jotted down in his codices.

The complete exhibition took more than 10 years to complete and covers a range of da Vinci’s works. Several reproductions of his more famous Renaissance paintings are present, including the Mona Lisa, Virgin of the Rocks, and The Annunciation. Large displays show the detailed anatomical sketches and drawings done by the man dominate one wall, and throughout the hall lie the reproductions and models, including a section where kids and adults can get ‘hands-on’ experience using some.


One of the best highlights of the exhibition is the “Secrets of the Mona Lisa.” Centered around the work of French engineer optician Pascal Cotte, the section reveals 25 secrets of the famous painting. Cotte was granted unprecedented access to the original painting through the French government and The Louvre Museum and used a cutting edge 240 megapixel multispectral imaging camera he invented himself to scan the painting repeatedly. The result was a virtual “peeling” of layers of varnish that had been applied over the centuries, revealing how the Mona Lisa looked as she was originally painted. The difference is striking and is the basis for the list of the 25 secrets.

The exhibition is divided into several themes, including physics and mechanical principles, flight studies, military machines, musical instruments, and civil machines. Models and displays showcase da Vinci’s visions for the glider, parachute, ball bearing and gear systems, the automobile and more. Many of his insights were far ahead of his time.


“The breadth of what he thought about and then tried to find a solution to is, to me, just unbelievable,” commented Director Norton as she escorted me around the hall. “There’s an elevated city model, because after the Plague of 1484, he thought, ‘how could we prevent this from happening again?’ because people were living down where the water came through the streets. So he designed a canal system and an elevated city with bridges over the canals and then people living above that in multi-storied buildings with a lot of airflow, because he knew that water had certainly been a key factor in the plague spreading.” The model city is detailed in its use of architecture but also deceptively simple; such was the thinking of the man.

Another highlight in the exhibit – a personal favorite of Norton’s – is the primitive diving suit. Constructed with bamboo, cork, pig’s leather and other material, the suit looks eerily reminiscent of modern-day deep diving suits. While the concept remained only in da Vinci’s head, in 2002 a team of researchers did attempt to make the suit and test it out. The study met with limited success. “I guess that means they didn’t drown,” quipped Norton.

Director Susan Norton and Leo's Diving Suit

National Geographic has several activities planned for visitors to the exhibit to enhance their experience. Every Saturday and Sunday, visitors can watch the BBC film “Leonardo da Vinci: The Man Who Wanted to Know Everything” for free in the Grosvenor Auditorium. (Showtimes are 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Sat/Sun and noon on Wed. See the exhibit website for exclusion dates.) Additionally, Butent Atalay, author of Leonardo’s Universe, will be giving a National Geographic Live lecture on July 8.

Most importantly, however, is the fact that Da Vinci-The Genius is a companion exhibit to the currently running “Design for the Other 90%.” This exhibition explores the growing movement to design low-cost solutions for people not traditionally served by professional designers. It demonstrates how design can be a dynamic force in saving and transforming lives around the globe. “You have modern solutions to problems, and then you have Leonardo’s designs for inventions of things many of which now that we have these things we take for granted,” said Norton. “Both are inventions-based exhibitions – one modern, one ancient – and they give us a lot of food for thought.”

Regardless, National Geographic is pleased to open up da Vinci’s mind to the public. At the end of our tour, I asked the director what she hoped people would walk away with. “Simply put,” she said, “they’re going to leave with a sense of wonder – and wanting to know more about him.” And in the end, it’s that sense of wonder and healthy curiosity that sparked Leonardo’s imagination. And who knows? This exhibit may well spark the world’s next Leonardo, too.

Da Vinci-The Genius runs from June 18 through September 12, 2010. Admission is free to the exhibit and the BBC film screening. See NatGeo’s website for further information, hours of operation, and directions.

Visit my photo gallery of the exhibit.

Having lived in the DC area for ten years, Ben still loves to wander the city with his wife, shooting lots of photos and exploring all the latest exhibits and galleries. A certified hockey fanatic, he spends some time debating the Washington Capitals club with friends – but everyone knows of his three decade love affair with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A professional writer, gamer, photographer, and Lego enthusiast, Ben remains captivated by DC and doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon.

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