What didn’t Leonardo da Vinci do?

We’re all familiar with the Mona Lisa and her enigmatic expression that has haunted curious art lovers for ages, but he also contributed to science, with dissections of 10 cadavers and anatomical drawings that are still accurate today and ideas for the helicopter, airplane, car, submarine and military tank, all noted in his codices (notebooks).

“Modern American society spends lots of time thinking about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and STEAM (STEM plus the arts),” said Steve Nash, senior curator of archaeology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. “Leonardo touched all of those fields except for mathematics. Some say he was the first scientist. He did technology, engineering, art. He’s relevant today because of STEM and STEAM.”

The traveling exhibit “Leonardo da Vinci: 500 Years of Genius” will be at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science from Friday through Aug. 25. It will feature almost 70 of da Vinci’s machine inventions — scaled down, life-sized and oversized — built according to his codices; “The Secrets of Mona Lisa,” an analysis of the painting at the Louvre in Paris; a catapult inspired by da Vinci; and historical re-enactors portraying characters from da Vinci’s era who will answer questions from visitors.

Nash, who’s also the exhibit curator, said da Vinci was an undisputed genius who relied on his innate curiosity to propel him forward in life. He was born to unmarried parents, a father who was a legal notary and a mother from a lower social class. He wasn’t allowed to go to school, and entire professions were off-limits due to his parents.

“He was just such a curious human that the pursuit of knowledge was fine for its own sake. He didn’t worry about what other people thought or had done,” said Nash. “He was sensitive to the fact he didn’t have a formal education, but he used that as an impetus, as a driving force in wanting to be better and do things differently and improve the world.”

A portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, completed around 1475, stands out as Nash’s favorite part of the exhibit. It was done early in da Vinci’s career, whereas the Mona Lisa was done later in his life.

De’ Benci was said to be a young Florentine woman who was somebody’s mistress, Nash said. Who the Mona Lisa was is still up for debate.

“What’s cool is the landscapes in the background,” said Nash. “People weren’t doing that at the time. He started doing that in this paintings. It stands out in his work.”


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