In 1482, the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, received a letter from a 30-year-old man named Leonardo di sir Piero da Vinci. “Italy in this time period was not one country,” says Martin Kane, a historian serving as education specialist for the Discovery Center in Union City, Tennessee. “It was many different warring city-states, all trying to get one up on each other. The Dukes of Milan tended to be particularly militaristic. The family had been mercenaries who worked for the old dukes until they thought, ‘Hmm. We’re the ones with the army. Why don’t we just take over?’”
In the letter, Leonardo described in detail a number of machines of war he had designed that he could build for the Duke, which far exceeded the military technology available at the time. Almost as an afterthought, the letter’s final sentences mentioned that, by the way, if His Grace needed some painting done, Leonardo, who had apprenticed with Andrea dell Verrocchio, Florence’s most respected artist, could do it. “The Duke of Milan did hire him — mostly to paint,” says Kane.
Leonardo da Vinci would spend the next 17 years in Milan, creating some of the most revered masterpieces in the Western world, including The Last Supper. By the time he died in 1519, he was regarded as one of the greatest artists and philosophers the world had ever seen, and the intervening centuries have only deepened his legend.
Besides the Mona Lisa, Virgin of the Rocks, and The Last Supper, Leonardo left behind dozens of notebooks and codices filled with sketches, notes, and musings. These notebooks have become prized as works of art in their own regard. (The only codex in American hands is owned by Microsoft founder Bill Gates.) “Over the course of his lifetime, he filled tens of thousands of pages with notes about many, many subjects — anatomy, observations about the natural world, sketches and plans for his artwork, and designs for machines, most of which were quite ahead of their time,” explains Kane.
While the sketches and notes in the codices are beautiful in their own right, they are also notoriously difficult to decipher. For one thing, Leonardo was ambidextrous, and could reportedly write simultaneously with both hands. Much of the writing in his notes was backwards, or “mirror writing,” a practice which some scholars believe Leonardo developed to keep his secrets. “He’s writing primarily for himself, so instead of giving you the full schematic of what he’s talking about, he’s just writing down what he specifically needed to remember,” says Lane, who has become quite the expert regarding all things relating to Leonardo.
The alluring, strange beauty of the codices obscured their deeper meaning, and they were overshadowed by the crowd-pleasing brilliance of his artwork. “For centuries, people essentially ignored Leonardo’s notebooks,” says Kane. “Over time, perhaps more than half of the notes were lost. It’s only in the past century or so that scholars have tried to figure out what’s going on in these books. We’re still discovering. This is new stuff for everybody.”
In the 1950s, the Leonardo da Vinci Institute in Florence, Italy, assigned Carlo Niccoli to attempt to build some of the devices described in Leonardo’s writings. Using only techniques and materials available during the Italian Renainssance, he discovered the intricacies and genius of the artist’s creative mind. New discoveries have been flowing from the notebooks ever since, and the artisans of Florence have continued to recreate Leonardo’s genius. That same Institute has put together this exhibition, currently traveling around the world.
Their works form the backbone of “Da Vinci’s Machines,” an extensive collection on display at the Discovery Center — roughly two hours from Memphis, straight up Highway 51 — through April 30th. The 100,000-square-foot history and science museum was founded three years ago, and the works of the Italian artisans are displayed with the same emphasis on interactivity that defines the three-year-old institution’s outlook. “They have tried to make the most realistic working models that they can based on Leonards’s original notes,” says Kane. “What makes this exhibit so exciting is that a hundred years ago, nobody knew he was doing this kind of thing.”
In the fifteenth century,artists made their living through patronage. If you wanted to paint for a living, you had to find a wealthy person with taste willing to part with some gold. Leonardo, who had been working in the Florentine artists guilds in his 20s, knew the score. So in order to make himself more marketable to the squabbling Italian nobility, he turned his formidable imagination to war.
“He worked as a military engineer for some of his career, which is odd given the common belief that he was a pacifist,” says Kane. “That would have made him very unusual for the time period. There are quotes from his writings that lead people to believe he found war to be fairly unpleasant and thought that humans shouldn’t engage in it. And yet, he designed these very intricate and elaborate military machines — the most famous of which is probably his tank.”
The first real tanks actually lumbered onto the battlefield during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, centuries later, but Leonardo had foreseen the basics of the design 350 years earlier. His version, sketched out in intricate detail, looked like a giant moving wigwam ringed with cannon pointing in all directions. The steep, sloping sides were meant to deflect incoming projectiles, protecting the men inside who would propel the beast forward, using giant hand cranks to drive the four concealed wheels.
“What scholars have discovered when reviewing these plans is that he included deliberate mistakes,” says Kane. If you turn the cranks in the way his tank plans indicate, one set of wheels rolls forward, the other set rolls backwards. “The machine doesn’t move. One theory is that he was a pacifist,” says Kane. “He didn’t want the machine to actually work. Another theory is that it was job security — if you want the tank built, he has to build it for you.”
In his later years, as war raged between the French King Louis XII and a coalition of Italian city states, Leonardo was forced to flee Milan to Venice, where he found work as a naval engineer for the Doge of Venice. While there, he invented the concept of the gun turret. “If you’ve seen warships from before the Civil War, they have straight lines of cannons,” says Kane. “If you want to point the cannon, you have to turn the ship. His design is very like a modern battleship in that it can pivot to fire in any direction. As in many cases, Leonardo is prefiguring something that will be invented again centuries later. Since many of his notes were lost, and are unavailable to the public, it’s not necessarily that he was inspiring future work. He’s predicting what will come after him.”
DREAMS OF FLIGHT
Four centuries before theWright Brothers, Leonardo was obsessed with flight. “Many of his designs are based on his observations of nature,” says Kane. “He wasn’t properly modern as a scientist, because he didn’t perform experiments. But he did carefully observe the world around him.”
The term for a flying machine that gets off the ground by flapping its wings is “ornithopter,” and Leonardo spent much of his considerable brainpower trying to make it work. He designed elaborate pulley systems to flap the wings of his canvas, wood, and iron contraptions. The resulting devices are beautiful in the way that few purely functional aircraft are today, but Leonardo never really had a chance.
The problem was power-to-weight ratios. Powered flight became possible when the internal combustion engine became light enough and powerful enough to propel the Wright Flyer through the air fast enough for its wings to create lift. Leonardo quickly figured out that the human body simply could not produce enough energy, so he designed devices intended to strengthen the arms and legs of his potential pilots. The resistance devices bear a striking resemblance to contemporary gym machines. “It’s an attempt to use human muscle to increase human muscle,” says Kane.
But Leonardo’s vision stretched beyond the technology of the time. He devised the inclinometer, a plumb line encased in a glass jar that would tell the pilots if their craft was flying straight. Today, the attitude indicator is a vital piece of equipment for pilots. “He’s trying to solve the problems of getting off the ground,” says Kane, “but he’s also anticipating the problems of what happens once you’re up there.”
The majority of Leonardo’s designs were beyond the capabilities of contemporary builders. The devices that were built were mostly used by his rich patrons to impress their guests. One of the most revolutionary inventions was a self-propelled cart, driven by springs and elaborate clockwork mechanisms. This was used not to carry heavy loads, but as part of a theatrical production, where a prop traveled from the wings of the theater to the center of the stage, seemingly by magic.
He also invented the floodlight by putting a candle in a mirrored box with a lens to focus the light. “He wanted to make it so you could stage plays at night without setting the theater on fire,” says Kane. “Optics played a very important role in the Italian Rennaissance. Things like mathematical perspective in paintings, and the more refined use of shadow you see in Renaissance paintings, are the direct result of optics being brought back and studied in Italy. It was international trade advancing art.”
The term “robot” was not coined until the 1920s, but Leonardo was a pioneer of the science nonetheless. His automatons were powered by springs and gears patterned after human muscles and joints, and encased in suits of armor. “He would take bits and pieces of his designs and spread them out through his notebooks,” explains Kane. “You would find some parts on one page, then other parts ten pages later. Again, this is potentially a way to keep people from stealing his ideas. In the last few years, people have been reassembling the various pieces of what is referred to as “The Robot Knight.”
“The original idea was that these would be mechanical soldiers. Leonardo wanted to save mankind by sending the robots out to fight each other, and the side whose robots prevail wins. The new research indicates that these were meant to be robot musicians for stage purposes. They were covered with armor to hide the inner workings — the magician hiding his secrets.” OF
The list of Leonardo’s ideas goes on and on. He invented the worm gear, transformed simple motions into complex ones, and designed a perpetual motion machine for the sole purpose of proving it was impossible. “There’s some evidence that he was planning to publish a treatise on mechanical devices such as these before his death, but he just didn’t get around to it,” Kane suggests.
“He was somewhat distracted. He jumped around a lot depending on what caught his eye at any particular moment. Quite a number of his projects went unfinished over the course of his life, not because he wasn’t capable of finishing them, but because he had basically ADHD.”
The biggest take away from the “Da Vinci’s Machines” exhibit is the stunning reach of Leonardo’s mind. The great man was artist, engineer, scientist, and naturalist all wrapped up in one package, driven by an unquenchable thirst for new knowledge. His curiosity laid the foundations for the modern world.
“He has an overwhelming desire to fix problems that he sees,” concludes Kane. “He’s a real problem-solver by nature.”