Thu, Jun 01, 2006 - Page 15 News List

Decoding the work of Da Vinci

A new exhibition debunks the theories that conspiracists and writers have constructed around Leonardo Da Vinci's art


George Skoufalos, left, and his friend, Chris Samaras, take in the exhibit, Leonardo da Vinci: Man, Inventor, Genius, at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

There are no albinos with red eyes and bleeding thighs stalking the galleries of the Museum of Science and Industry here. There are no dead curators sprawled naked on the floor with pentagrams drawn on their chests in blood and scrambled Fibonacci series scrawled at their sides.

But there is a "cryptex" on display, perhaps the only one ever constructed. It is a prop from the leaden movie of Dan Brown's best-selling roller-coaster ride The Da Vinci Code: Spell the right word on its dials (if you could only get at them), and the Holy Grail is yours.

That object and a few panels of wall text are the only things in Leonardo da Vinci: Man, Inventor, Genius that tap into the worldwide cultic response to Brown's novel. The association and timing, though, could not have hurt this unusual exhibition's appeal.

This is no act of exploitation, however: The wall texts point out that despite Brown's assertion, Leonardo did not invent anything like the cryptex. With less conclusiveness, the exhibition also debunks the book's interpretations of Leonardo's Last Supper and Mona Lisa: no church conspiracies here about keepers of the Grail sending coded messages to one another over the millenniums.

This show is almost the inverse of the world of The Da Vinci Code. A code implies something secret, available only to the initiated, a hidden world in which nothing is what it seems. Focusing on the machines and inventions sketched out in Leonardo's notebooks, the exhibition shows his almost ecstatic efforts to discern and disclose the world's workings and to master its principles, leaving nothing about them secret and hidden. This is a display of his decoding.

Pull away the veil of flesh -- as Leonardo often did in his dissections of human and animal corpses -- and you see his vision of divinity made manifest. Muscle and bone and joint are nature's versions of gears and pulleys and levers. And Leonardo never ceased combining and recombining these elemental ingredients into machines that still astonish in their simplicity and power. These are the rudimentary skeletons of his introspective Madonnas.

Some of his machines were built in his time, including a robotic knight that supposedly moved its arms and head according to the twists and turns of an inner mechanism. Others were imagined but never fully executed: a flying ship whose sails turn in the air like screws; enormous wings based on the anatomical structures of bats and birds that might give humans the gift of flight. Some clearly were implaus-ible: Who could easily walk on water using large floats on the bottoms of shoes and other floats pegged to the bottom of ski poles? That kind of feat would be better left to a practitioner of different sorts of miracles.

Still other machines were proposals for weaponry, including a circular tank moved by eight men who would shoot cannons while maneuvering the turtle-shelled apparatus with a series of cranks and gears.

Some of the Italian-made working models in the first section of the show -- all based on drawings from the notebooks -- are meant to be observed; others are meant to be played with. They should all have been available to touch. It would also have helped to know precisely when Leonardo was creating from scratch, when he was replicating something familiar and what he did to improve on what others had already done.

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