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Leonardo da Vinci: Scientist, Inventor, Artist

By Benjamin A. Stingle

While Harvard boasts of students who excel in various fields, an exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science shows that Leonardo da Vinci could combine excellence and diversity in a single mind.

The display, which will run until September, includes scale models of inventions envisioned by Da Vinci and a theatrical show about his life and times, in addition to its 15,000 square feet of art originals and reproductions.

The museum has also increased interactivity in the display by including computer information stations throughout. There are also portable CD-ROM audio guides which are connected via radio with each individual work, allowing observers to go at their own pace.

In addition, visitors can learn to build an arch or paint in perspective with a machine which Da Vinci invented and is still in use today.

There are also attendants stationed throughout the museum who explain some of Da Vinci's other well-known interests, such as his dissections. Staff members at the museum demonstrate to visitors the dissection of sheep eyes, hearts or lungs.

Da Vinci the Scientist

Da Vinci's knowledge of human anatomy was unprecedented in his age. The artist dissected humans and animals for study and learned more about the body's internal organs than anyone else at that time.

Da Vinci studied human anatomy to learn about the dependence of limbs on nerves and joints, experts say.

However, during the 16th century, dissection was considered criminal. And since there were no preservatives, Da Vinci would be forced to work on the bodies for a week while they decomposed.

The museum notes that despite the noxious nature of these experiments, Da Vinci was a sensitive man. Not only was he a vegetarian, but he was known to buy caged animals in order to set them free.

Da Vinci is described as the quintessential Renaissance Man, who not only revolutionized techniques in art, but made huge strides in science as well.

The exhibit portrays Da Vinci as a perennial tinkerer who tried his hand at all sorts of inventions, rarely finishing one before moving on to a new project.

Da Vinci was intrigued by the concept of flight and made several attempts to design flying machines. His concepts range from imitations of bird wings to one sketch which critics have noted closely resembles the modern helicopter.

Despite his humanitarian nature, Da Vinci also created many machines of war. He built a predecessor of the modern tank which would allow soldiers to attack from behind a protected layer of armor.

Controversy Raised

However, some controversy has arisen over the exhibit because the so-called "biggest exhibit ever" of Da Vinci contains mostly reproductions, not originals, and attributes some of the displayed artwork to Da Vinci, although critics say they are almost certainly not his work.

James S. Ackerman '60, Kinglsey professor emeritus of fine arts at Harvard, quit his advisory position in the exhibit over objections to many of the attributions in the display.

"[One of the pieces had] a 99 percent probability of not being a Leonardo," he said in a Boston Globe article. "If even one more attribution to Leonardo were discovered, it would be front page news."

Ackerman says he is concerned that such loose attributions could be used to increase the value of pieces whose origins are less than reputable, noting that attributions from exhibit catalogues are often used to appraise the value of works.

The conflict has raised questions about the role that "non-art" museums like the Museum of Science should play in the in establishing artistic accreditation, as they have usually not dealt with valuable or well-known pieces of art.

However, the Museum of Science says the exhibit is appropriately placed because it emphasizes the scientific aspects of Da Vinci's work as opposed to the artistic.

"The art is only one third of an exhibit that tries to emphasize the scientific qualities of Leonardo," says Otto Letski, director of the cultural exchange for the exhibit, during a press preview.

"Five hundred years ago it was not interesting to sign and date your work. We did not have such a cult of personality back then."

The exhibit's expert on Leonardo da Vinci, Professor Carlo Pedretti, agrees.

"The purpose of an exhibit like this is not to publish, but to educate."

Having originated in Germany, the display has already traveled through several venues in Europe, including Sweden and Denmark. After September, the exhibit is scheduled to move east to Singapore.

The display follows a theme of Leonardo da Vinci exhibits throughout the country, following the coattails of Da Vinci's Codex Leceister, the artist's 16th-century manuscript that Bill Gates bought in 1994 for $30.8 million which is currently on display in Paris at the Musee du Luxembourg.

The manuscript has been on tour in New York, Milan and Rome since its purchase by the Microsoft chair two years ago. The document features sketches by the artist and his theories on evolution.

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