Sheer ‘Genius’

Leonardo da Vinci is something of a pop-culture icon. To some, he is the guy that painted the “Mona Lisa.” To others, he’s the guy from whence the book The Da Vinci Code drew its name and machinations (though it’s best to simply forget the cinematic version). And to children of the 1980s and ’90s, the leader of the Teenage Mutant Ninja
Turtles is his namesake. 

Factual references, all of them. Nevertheless, each neglects to acknowledge da Vinci, the Italian artist born in 1452 and considered the first painter of the High Renaissance, by what were perhaps his two greatest passions — science and invention. If you’re interested in learning more about this da Vinci’s creative mind, visit The Genius of Leonardo: Machines in Motion, which runs through September 7 at the Witte Museum. 

The exhibit features 40 life-size machines — some of which are functional — constructed from detailed studies of da Vinci’s many designs and drawings, as well as an interactive area of miniature machines in “Leonardo’s Workshop.” The exhibit — the first of its kind in the United States — is divided into four different sections: Air, Water, Fire, and Earth. 

And while each of the four sections is unique in its own right, it is the last segment, Earth, that truly shines. In addition to a pillar-lifting machine, a crane, and an early incarnation of a bicycle, Earth also features a one-man printing press (designed circa 1480), which da Vinci originally outlined with the hope that he could publish his many drawings.  

Fire, meanwhile, is likely to be a favorite among museum-goers over the next few months as the exhibit lives up to its name. Though short on quantity, the Fire section features such eye-popping machines as an armored car (yes, you can step inside), a mortar gun (a cannon of sorts, designed to fling stone balls that exploded on impact), and a machine gun.  

Though more hit-and-miss than the Earth and Fire exhibits, the Air portion of the tour does sufficiently convey da Vinci’s foresight. Among the items on display are a parachute and various flying mechanisms, including one built in the mold of a bird — complete with flapping wings. Each of da Vinci’s flying devices was designed in the 1480s, approximately 400 years before the Brothers Wright completed their first successful flight. 

When he wasn’t busy painting or designing the progenitor of the airplane, da Vinci also liked to try his hand (or feet) at walking on water. Designed around 1480, da Vinci’s water-walking mechanism — included in the Water section — features two inflated leather “shoes,” and two more bags attached to a set of poles “steered” by the water-walker.  

Each section of Genius of Leonardo also features human “apprentices” (young actors dressed in old-school garb), explaining da Vinci’s inspirations. The apprentices may be informative, but they’re also extremely lifelike on flat-screen television sets and thus quite creepy. 

Fortunately, they are one of the few shortcomings of the Genius of Leonardo exhibit, which just might help da Vinci’s modern legend evolve from controversial-book muse/Ninja Turtle tocayo to fully appreciated inventor. •



The Genius of Leonardo
10am-5pm Mon-Sat,
10am-8pm Tue,
Noon-5pm Sun
Through Sep 7
3-8pm Tue: $3
Witte Museum
3801 Broadway
(210) 357-1900


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