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Portrait of a visionary

Exhibition explores the many facets of Leonardo da Vinci's genius

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He was the ultimate Renaissance man.

Leonardo da Vinci was not only a masterful artist who left us the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, but a scientist, anatomist, mathematician, engineer, architect, inventor and philosopher.

Five hundred years ago, the Italian visionary designed futuristic machines that were the science fiction of their day.

His ahead-of-their-time ideas from the late 1400s and early 1500s still have the power to astound and inspire. They're celebrated in Da Vinci -- The Genius, a touring exhibition that opens Friday and runs to Oct. 23 at the MTS Centre Exhibition Hall.

"Very few people actually know much about Leonardo," Bruce Peterson, managing director of show producer Grande Exhibitions, says from the company's base in Melbourne, Australia. "People leave totally dumbfounded that one man did all this."

The show strives to paint a comprehensive portrait of Leonardo, including a timeline, touch screens that let visitors explore different aspects of his achievements, animated presentations about specific artworks such as the perfectly proportioned Vitruvian Man, a one-hour BBC documentary that screens continuously, and parchment-style text panels that highlight his many "firsts."

He was, for instance, the first to meticulously dissect human cadavers and make detailed anatomical sketches -- research he had to conduct in secret because it was taboo in his time.

Peterson says he finds "edu-tainment" a horrible word, but it's still the best term to describe the show's blend of learning and enjoyment. Most people take about 60 to 75 minutes to experience the show.

About five years ago, Grande Exhibitions formed a partnership with a team of Italian artisans who construct the inventor's ingenious machines "as if Leonardo built them himself." As much as possible, they use materials that were available in Renaissance Italy: wood, cotton, brass, iron, rope and canvas.

The craftsmen have so far tackled about 130 of the inventions -- from a bicycle and a car to a chamber of mirrors. They have produced multiple copies so Grande Exhibitions can have four versions of Da Vinci -- The Genius touring simultaneously. Edmonton is the only other Canadian city that has presented the show.

While a competing company called EMS Exhibits also tours the inventions -- its show Leonardo da Vinci: Man, Inventor, Genius has played Montreal -- Grande says it has more of the machines, presents more of them at full size, and has exclusive rights to recent high-tech analysis of the Mona Lisa.

The MTS Centre's Kevin Donnelly wants to emphasize that there are no historical artifacts on view -- all artworks are digital reproductions -- and that the show has nothing whatsoever to do with Dan Brown's bestseller The Da Vinci Code.

Peterson says he doesn't mind that Brown's 2003 novel has piqued interest in Leonardo. But he says the show presents facts, not "utter rubbish" like the novel's assertion that the feminine-looking figure on Christ's right in The Last Supper is not the apostle John, but Christ's "wife," Mary Magdalene.


The show brings to three-dimensional "life" 65 inventions from Leonardo's notebooks. A section dedicated to his dream of human flight includes a graceful glider, parachute, and even a precursor of the helicopter. A section on aquatic machines showcases his diving flippers, prototype scuba suit, life buoy and submarine.

Since Leonardo worked as a military strategist, there's an extensive military area showing inventions such as his famous tank -- built at less than full size, and looking a bit like a wooden flying saucer -- as well as multi-barrelled machine guns, contraptions for scaling the walls of fortresses, war chariots with wheel-mounted scythes to mow down enemies and a steam cannon.

In a hands-on area devoted to physics and mechanics, visitors can operate machines such as a crankcase, a rolling mill and a forerunner of the modern car jack.

On the artistic side, the show was to feature a projection of The Last Supper mural at its real-life size (9 x 4.5 metres), but the image couldn't fit on the available wall and has been downsized to about 6 x 3 m.

The famously enigmatic Mona Lisa gets the most attention. Visitors will learn how a multi-spectral camera was used in 2004 to penetrate the yellowed and tarnished masterpiece, revealing how it originally looked and exposing 25 secrets about it.

The world's only 360-degree replica of the portrait allows visitors to see the iconic work out of its frame, from all sides. The experience in some ways exceeds what eight million visitors per year get from seeing the real work behind glass at the Louvre, Peterson says.

"We don't suggest for one moment that it replaces the original," he says, "but people will get a far greater appreciation and understanding of the most popular piece of art in the world."


Life of Leonardo


Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452 near Vinci in Tuscany, the illegitimate son of a notary and a peasant woman. He had no surname in the modern sense; da Vinci means "from Vinci." Because he was illegitimate, he lacked access to formal education and was largely self-taught. "He developed an insatiable thirst for knowledge," says exhibition spokesman Bruce Peterson.

Leonardo stood six-foot-six, was left-handed and reputed to be a vegetarian and homosexual. He died in 1519 at age 67.

As an artist, he was a perfectionist, "unable to accept second-best," Peterson says. "He would take forever to finish a commission, and of course this annoyed the patrons, and he stopped getting commissions. He became a military strategist and engineer, so his artwork took a back seat."

He was never wealthy, Peterson adds. "Michelangelo earned for one of his sculptures as much as Leonardo earned for his entire life."

About 6,000 pages of Leonardo's codices (notebooks) survive, out of some 24,000 pages he is believed to have written and sketched. He used backwards "mirror writing" and apparently planted mistakes in his notes to foil people who might try to steal his ideas. Few of his inventions were built during his lifetime.


Exhibit Preview

Da Vinci -- The Genius

MTS Centre Exhibition Hall

Friday to Oct. 23

Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sun. 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Tickets: $19.95 at Ticketmaster

video player to use on WFP

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 18, 2011 D1

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