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When I was about 9 years old, I rigged up a system of strings and pulleys just inside the door to my bedroom. One end of the string was attached to the doorknob, and the other to a paper grocery bag suspended upside-down from the ceiling. When a visitor would enter my bedroom, he or she would find a brown paper bag fluttering down to enclose his or her head. The victim would yank the bag off, glower and then laugh, and then ask to see how it worked. The gag lost much of its charm when my little sister flung open my door again and again to make the bag fall on her head repeatedly.
Did Leonardo Da Vinci have a little sister? Well, to use the insensitive term, he was a bastard, so he may have had half-siblings, so we really can’t be sure. Regardless, he persevered through his difficulties to become the original Renaissance Man, and perhaps the most iconic genius the planet has produced.
His inventions are the subject of the Da Vinci Machines Exhibition, on view through the end of the year in the cavernous, 15,000-square-foot lobby of the Bank of America Building at Market and Eighth streets.
The exhibition, on loan from the Museum of Leonardo da Vinci in Florence, Italy, contains working models of more than 60 devices Leonardo planned in drawings, or, in a few cases, actually created in his lifetime. A tour guide—probably one of the Exhibition Managers, twin brothers John and Mark Rodgers—walks visitors through the space, demonstrating how each kinetic model works. Watching the various wooden representations of mobile bridges, mills, and military weapons work in miniature is a treat.
You can check out models based on Leonardo’s plans for what eventually became the bicycle, the hang glider, the life preserver, water skis, the paddleboat, the hydraulic mill, ball bearings, and the anemometer. You can see a large model and drawing that offers a cutaway view of Leonardo’s famous wooden lion, presented to the king of France in the 16th century, which reared up and opened its chest to reveal a clutch of lilies. You can learn about Leonardo’s secret society that revered matriarchal rule and had funky group sex rituals. Just kidding; couldn’t resist a Da Vinci Code joke.
Leonardo’s unquenchable curiosity resulted in 14,000 inventions, about 2,500 of which are, in some form, used today, said the tour guide. The 3D models mostly fit on pedestals, but some of them are much bigger. They are grouped in themes: war machines, flying machines, nautical and hydraulic machines, and “devices illustrating the principles of mechanics.”
In the military area, you can see Leonardo’s turtle-like tank, and a life-size model of a fearsome war-wagon with deadly scythes that sliced through the air not far from the horses pulling the vehicle itself (see photo above). The inventor was something of a one-man Boeing, if you will, coming up with dozens of innovative ideas for the attacking and defense of medieval strongholds. Kings and other royals prized Leonardo for this alone, not to mention his skills as a painter, an engineer, and more.
The flight area reminds us of Leonardo’s obsession with birds and the idea of flight. The genius’ awkward-looking but working parachute and his fully functional hang glider hang from the ceiling. His “air screw,” however, kinda looks like something the Three Stooges might have built.
Yet, so many of these devices seem to have located an elegantly simple solution to a problem. You look at them and think, “Of course!” Leonardo’s ball bearings, bridges, and water-screws look ingenious as only the most simple ideas can.
In his lifetime, he was gradually revered as a freak-level genius, as rare as they come, surely touched by god. Kings and other royalty paid him to be their everything—painter, engineer, architect, mapmaker, advisor, and good-luck charm. When he grew old, he accepted an invitation from the King of France to spend his dotage scribbling away (in his backward sentences, which he supposedly wrote because he felt it was easier for a lefty that way) in cushy, royal digs. (Check out the melodramatic painting of the apocryphal moment when the King “received Leonardo’s last breath.”
Now that Steve Jobs has passed away, many are wondering what will happen to Apple, not to mention the future of technology and our lifestyles. Jobs is a figure who is arguably, like Leonardo, a renaissance man, capable of seeing what might be, building it, and changing our daily lives. Jobs’ various visions for computing, listening to music, communicating, etc. have shaped us all, and we’re right to be concerned about what will happen now that he has left us.
In her 1967 book, The Life and Times of Leonardo, author Liana Bortolon wrote, “Man is as uncomfortable today, faced with a genius, as he was in the 16th century. Five centuries have passed, yet we still view Leonardo with awe.”
Walking through the exhibition, you can’t help but feel that awe, along with envy, regret that we don’t have more like Leonardo, and a sense of kinship with a long-gone soul whose native curiosity still has the power to shame the rest of us into a contemplative doubt about how we’ve chosen to live.
The Da Vinci Machines Exhibition is on view from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through December 31 (it's been extended!) in the Bank of America Building at Market and Eighth streets. Visit http://www.davinciexhibitstl.com or call 314-241-1241 for more info. And for an interesting but sketchy (pun intended) TED talk on what Leonardo may have looked like, go here.