Of the billions of people who have lived in the last few thousand years, it’s not hard to make a case the Leonardo da Vinci was one of the smartest. Born of poor parents and self-educated, he managed to turn the Renaissance on its head with his endless stream of inventions, artwork, scientific research, sketches and smart philosophies. He is the very definition of a “Renaissance Man” with his extraordinary output and often astonishingly forward thinking ideas.
For a generation brought up digitally, however, sketches and drawings aren’t enough, and so Grande Exhibitions took all of Leonardo’s original codices (basically sketchbooks) and collaborated with artisans to recreate 70 of his most famous – and most interesting – inventions. Sure, you’ve probably seen a few of them before, but this comprehensive exhibit is not only highly engaging, but a lot of it is hands on too, a guaranteed hit with the small set.
But as is its wont, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science didn’t just open up a big hall for a traveling exhibit, they reinvented it and so Leonardo da Vinci: 500 Years of Genius (Mar 1, 2019 – Aug 25, 2019) proves to be one of the very best and most comprehensive exhibitions about the inventor ever shown. But the real gem of the show in my eyes wasn’t all the inventions but was instead “The Secrets of Mona Lisa”, built around the extensive scientific research of Pascal Cotte. Cotte scanned, analyzed, and identified the many layers and re-paintings of one of the most famous paintings in the world and highlights of his research is shared in the last room of the exhibit. It’s quite fascinating, actually.
Leonardo da Vinci: 500 Years of Genius
I was invited to the media opening of the exhibit, along with the Denver Post, Westword and various other Colorado news outlets, and we started with introductions by both George Sparks, President of the DMNS and Dr. Steve Nash, senior curator of archaeology, followed by a chance to explore the exhibit pre-opening. That’s why my photos have so few people in ’em.
Without further ado, some photos from the event:
This first photo is of Dr. Steve Nash, senior curator of archaeology, Denver Museum of Nature & Science. I talked with Dr. Nash later and he told me that he refers to Leonardo as “Lenny” to remind himself that “da Vinci” just means from Vinci, a region in Italy. It’s not Leonardo’s last name. Good for you to remember too, so you can sound maximally intelligent about the man and the exhibit.
The exhibit itself is in the Phipps Special Exhibit Gallery on the top floor of the DMNS building. This means that it’s immediately above the Coffee Lab, a fun little café that you should also check out while you’re at the museum.
This is the main exhibit area and you can see just how beautiful all the reproductions of Lenny’s (you knew I had to use that name at some point, right?) inventions are. Front and center, if you’re curious, is a self-driving vehicle used in elaborate stage productions back in the late 1400’s. Through the innovative use of springs, it could propel itself across a stage as if pulled by invisible horses. As you would expect, every single invention has a useful and informative placard describing what’s being shown and why it’s of interest.
Also note in the above photo the man on the right with the ornate Renaissance robe. He’s one of the many historical enactors who roam the exhibits, chatting with visitors and bringing the era to life. I had a chance to chat with Francois d’Amboise de Cheverny and was impressed with just how much he’s studied and learned about the era and Leonardo. Turns out that Francois was born in Paris and had his own theater company before moving to the States. In total, there are seven of these historical enactors and they’re all delightful additions. If you go – and you should – be sure to say hello and ask them a question or ask them to sing a popular tune of the era!
The catapult models are undoubtedly going to be one of the most popular hands-on activities and there’s some interesting physics involved here too: They are the same catapult model, but the tension bars on one are tighter than on the other. The result is that one tends to throw long with a low arc, while the other throws shorter because of its higher arc. From the relative position of the two targets you can guess which is which, yes?
Here’s a tidbit about Leonardo that I didn’t realize too: He was a pacifist. The only reason he got so involved in designing and inventing military weapons was because it was profitable and could help fund his studio and staff. And he was very busy with military designs and refined a lot of existing weapons to help his home city of Milan be successful in any battles or skirmishes.
There wasn’t much that didn’t capture Leonardo’s imagination at some point in his life, from designing new musical instruments to trying to figure out how some creatures could walk on water or float on water, while others sank. The underwater breathing suit looks like something out of a Lovecraftian nightmare, but it’s also quite interesting to see Leonardo coming up with solutions to these sort of problems. And the water ski setup on the left? That’s so a man could literally walk on water. No word on whether it worked, though.
Another area where kids and adults will both engage is the hands-on Sketch Like Leonardo station:
There are a couple of tables set up with these items and while in my shot you see the reflection of one of Leonardo’s paintings on the wall, it’s actually a mirror with a glass sheet in front. Sit down, angle it right, and you’ll be able to make a stunning self-portrait. Well, okay, a self-portrait. Whether it’s stunning might still be up to your artistic skills. A fun and engaging task that could be ideal for tweens and teens too.
Along the walls are some of the amazing sketches and anatomical studies that Leonardo is so justifiably famous for:
As Dr. Nash pointed out in his welcoming talk to us media folk, what makes all this even more amazing is that Leonardo was studying cadavers literally as they were decaying because there was no refrigeration, no preservation techniques, just the heat of a Milan afternoon trying to invade a cold, dark basement. The illumination? A couple of candles. But even in the photo above, you can see just how breathtaking his sketches were of the many parts of the human body.
There’s also a fascinating display of his Vitruvian Man drawing that explores the many, many ratios of the famous illustration of a man. Ratio of hand size to height, face to forearm, head to torso, even the ratios of top of head to eyes, to nose, to chin. A mathematician analyzing the human body, the video tutorial adjacent to the Vitruvian Man reproduction will keep you watching for quite a while as it explores all of this.
The Secrets of Mona Lisa
Which then leads you right into my favorite part of the entire exhibition, The Secrets of Mona Lisa. It’s breathtaking and fascinating both:
The above shows five versions of the Mona Lisa (more properly “Monna Lisa”, as they’d say in Italian, but I’ll stick with the more common English spelling to avoid confusion). They are, left to right, Image of Genuine Color, Black & White Infrared, False Color Infrared, Reverse False Color Infrared and Color Today, showing just how faded the photo is versus its original colors.
Pascal took some incredibly high resolution imagery of the painting which also let him analyze and identify some of the puzzles that have always confounded art historians about the painting. Like, why does she have no eyelashes and eyebrows?
I felt like if we would hand the famous painting to Sherlock Holmes and he had scanning cameras and other modern gear, this is the kind of analysis he’d have come up with after analysis.
Some historians have claimed that Mona Lisa is really a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of a famous Florentine merchant of the era. Turns out that upon analysis, Pascal recognized that it’s not, but… it was. In fact, here’s how the Gherdardini version of the Mona Lisa looked:
There’s so much that’s familiar in this version, notably the three-level background, but the face is different, the clothes are different and even the hair is different. Why? Pascal Cotte explores exactly what happened and how this version was resurfaced as part of his analysis of the Mona Lisa itself.
Honestly, while the Leonardo da Vinci exhibit with all the inventions, sketches, illustrations, paintings and such is very good, I was far more entranced by the deep dive into the analysis and historical and scientific research of the famously beguiling Mona Lisa. I’ve seen the original at the Louvre in Paris and this was even more interesting because you can see the painting and understand its nuances and details in a way that is impossible of the surprisingly small original, roped off and safely protected behind glass.
Overall, this is yet another winning exhibition from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, continuing its trend of being on the forefront of art and history exhibitions in the United States. It’s worth a visit, no question, and there’s lots more museum to explore once you’re done with Lenny, uh, Leonardo, so plan for a full day.
Disclosure: The DMNS comp’d my admission so I could attend the opening event.