Leonardo’s dream designs become reality in Da Vinci—The Genius at The Venetian
By Matt Kelemen
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci is the most enigmatic of the Renaissance masters, the “universal genius” in a peer group that included Michelangelo and Raphael. Many of Leonardo’s greatest visions never
materialized, though, as his ideas came to him faster than he could attempt to create them. Flying machines, weapons of war, mechanical men, a mirrored room and an entire city are
just some of the engineering and technical designs that filled his many codices, or sketchbooks.
Those designs are fully manifested as part of the Da Vinci— The Genius exhibit, the highlight of The Venetian’s summerlong Carnevale celebration of Italy’s contributions to culture and cuisine. The exhibit contains 75 machines built to Leonardo’s specifications by Florentine artisans and obtained in 2005 from Rome’s Il Genio di Leonardo da Vinci Museo. In 2007, the machines and models were combined with Secrets of the Mona Lisa, an exhibit resulting from French scientific engineer Pascal Cotte’s unprecedented, in-depth study of Leonardo’s most famous painting at its home in Paris’ Louvre. Cotte’s discoveries overturn centuries of conventional knowledge of the Mona Lisa, while the sheer scope of inventions on hand to interact with or marvel at indicate the expanse of Leonardo’s imagination.
The tour begins with encased re-creations of the artists’ sketchbooks, and full-scale models of the artist’s famous flying machines. A whirligig-inspired “Aerial Screw,” a hang glider and machine designed to achieve lift with flapping wings lend large-scale wonder to the exhibit. Flight instruments help segue to more practical concepts on display: a wooden bicycle, Leonardo’s version of the Archimedes’ screw, household appliances, anatomy sketches based on the study of cadavers, a portable piano and a diving suit complete with breathing apparatus. Not so practical but accessible and ripe for photo/video fun is a mechanical man and a walk-in booth that becomes an endless mirrored room once the door is closed.
Leonardo’s war machines are represented mostly in scaled-down versions. A wooden tank, siege apparatus with a roof to protect soldiers and a catapult provide insight into how the artist had to make a living in order to make time for pet projects, such as sketching his iconic Vitruvian Man. But the most fascinating insights come from the findings of Cotte, whose multispectral imaging of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre revealed secrets beneath layers of paint. A reproduction on a poplar panel sits in the middle of the room, with a huge version on the wall behind it. Another wall contains Mona Lisa in various stages—original appearance, current appearance, infrared—resulting from Cotte’s study.
Cotte was on hand for the opening day, and shared findings such as the likelihood that “Mona Lisa” originally had eyelashes that may have dissolved due to restorative efforts, and Leonardo never painted columns that were later cut from the panel. “Leonardo is a genius, of course,” says Cotte of the revelations his work enabled. “But this is a human, not just a genius who thought of things and they came out perfect. He changed his mind all the time. He worked, he worked, he worked.”