When I think of Leonardo Da Vinci, the Mona Lisa automatically comes to mind. I was lucky enough to see this amazing piece of art when I went to France a few years ago, but today I learned more about him and began to appreciate his style and way of thinking. The Da Vinci Museum in Milan is dedicated to showing off some of his greatest work, and fascinated me from the start.
It was interesting to learn about how he was more than an artist. He considered himself mainly an engineer. During Leonardo’s time, many architects focused on the concept of an ideal city; one that reflected the prestige of the prince, beauty, and geography. Leonardo Da Vinci on the other hand focused on practical concepts. He took issues such as the plague into consideration when designing a city. The first exhibit we saw in the museum was a model of Da Vinci’s “ideal city” also known as “Plastico urbanistico o città ideale” which included several canals which were important for water and sewage transportation. I found Leonardo’s ideas particularly interesting because of how they differed from others at the time. While everyone else was focused on the appearance of objects, structures, machines, etc., he really understood that it was more important to make these new innovations last. At the same time, he still had an appreciation for beauty which was expressed through his works of art.
Something else that held my interest was how Leonardo Da Vinci applied his practical engineering thoughts to the human anatomy. We next saw a large replica of his sketch “Vitruvian Man” which translates to the ideal proportions of man. Although I have seen pictures of this before, I never took time to appreciate it or understand how the proportions work. There is one man in two positions, one inscribed in a circle and one in a square. I think it is compelling how he measured out exactly how the ideal man should be. For example, our tour guide explained to us that a man’s height should be the length of his elbow to his fingertips times four. The belly button is exactly in the middle of the circle and the genitals (important for reproduction) are exactly in the middle of the square. “Vitruvian Man” as a whole depicts man as the center of a material and a spiritual world, one where man is God.
The Da Vinci Museum also contains one of the biggest collections of wooden model machines designed by the versatile artist. Only 12,000 sketches of his ideas are left, and many pages for even just one machine are in many different places. The models on display are the accurate reinterpretations of the detailed sketches that have been saved. It was amazing to think about how he thought of these ideas, even if some of them were far-fetched.
Since he primarily considered himself an engineer, that is how he presented himself to employers (yes, even the great Leonardo Da Vinci had to sell himself with a resume)! Many of the models that we saw today were machines that were ideas for the Duke of Milan. One of the more interesting machines that was meant for battle was the double sling. It would have been used to catapult stones with force. It was captivating to learn that he used his skills not only to improve inventions by man for the future, but to help mankind at the time as well.
Then of course we saw his famous flying models. There were several small ones, such as the beating wing and the air screw. One of the coolest models for myself personally was the giant flying machine called The Glider. It was displayed hanging up, with widespread pterodactyl-like wings. Even more interesting, I learned that it was built in secret (probably to prevent enemies from discovering it). Unfortunately, it was never finished because Milan was conquered by France during this time. After this event, no one else came to Leonardo Da Vinci and he had no means of completing the project. It was fascinating to learn about the many sides of the multi-talented man. His influence on art, architecture, and engineering continue to shape the boundaries of ideas today.