The touch of universal genius

The Rahmi M. Koç Museum is hosting an interactive exhibition of forty machines created from drawings made by Leonardo da Vinci.

As an as yet unknown boy of fourteen, he came with his father to Florence. That boy, who had been painting since he was very small and who took a great interest in everything he laid eyes on, was Leonardo da Vinci. One day his father showed his drawings to Andrea del Verrocchio, one of the great masters of the day, and his own life and the course of history were changed forever.
At the atelier to which he was accepted, da Vinci not only painted but also played the lyre. Verrocchio assigned the young artist, along with his other assistants, Botticelli and di Credo, the task of completing the small details in a scene depicting the Baptism of Jesus. Leonardo painted the kneeling angel in that tableau. Realizing that that angel was clearly the most outstanding part of the picture, Verrocchio is said to have given up painting that very day. At the very least this canvas is known by art historians to have been his final work.

From that day onward a number of art patrons and paintings in need of completion came into Leonardo’s life. But his power of imagination encompassed such a broad spectrum, from mechanics and geometry to flying machines, fortifications and bridges, that he never finished any work he started. His mind was forever roaming. While taking part in projects being developed for the Pope, he was also working on cadavers on the one hand and filling notebooks with drawings of fetuses in various positions in the womb in order to understand the phenomenon of pregnancy, which particularly interested him. The notes that he made from right to left at either the top or the bottom of his drawings can only be read in a mirror reflection. He traveled constantly; the human body, the wings of birds and, most importantly of all, the mechanism of movement were his sources of inspiration, and he filled the pages of a 15,000-page book with sketches by the thousands.
Art and science were closely intertwined in the Italian Renaissance, the most salient example of this being the now familiar ‘Homo Vitruvianus’, with arms and legs open to either side, which illustrates the proportions of the human body. Leonardo was the first person to recognize that the spine is ‘S’-shaped, but this is only one of his many firsts. His interest in anatomy led him to make the first robot design known in history. And his drawing showing the heart valves that pump the blood inspired a new method in heart surgery as recently as 2005.

The implications of the Italian Renaissance for art and thought were manifesting themselves all over the place in the 15th century. But designing a submarine or a parachute, or coming up with the idea of using solar energy or of making a calculator were not the province of everybody. It is precisely for this reason that Leonardo is regarded unconditionally as a ‘universal genius’. We all know the big names of the Renaissance: Michelangelo’s flawless sculptures, the paintings of Raphael... But Leonardo was ahead of his time in a way that is difficult to grasp. The mirror was a perfect invention; Leonardo invented a machine for making mirrors. Man and the human body were a marvel, but no one had yet thought of walking on water and designing a buoy for this purpose, or of inventing webbed gloves. And herein lies the mystery of this great man, even at several centuries’ remove.
”The secret of movement is the law of life” was the slogan and main theme of progress. Observing and analyzing were one thing, but to design machines based on those observations indicated a completely different, and boundless, mental ability. Perhaps because of his painting of the Mona Lisa, Leonardo is known and remembered as one of the greatest painters of all time. But the number of paintings he actually completed doesn’t exceed a dozen. He was both a painter and something beyond a painter... Had everything gone according to plan, we would have been walking today on a Galata Bridge designed by him. But we never saw that bridge, a small model of which has nevertheless been constructed in Norway. Had he not agreed to work for Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, he rather than Gentile Bellini would have become the Ottoman palace painter.

Now, the people of the 21st century are being confronted with Leonardo’s unique intelligence thanks to an exhibition that is traveling around the world. This exhibition, consisting of a selection of the forty out of Leonardo’s total 2,500 inventions deemed most interesting by three scientists who came together in Florence, is being shown in Istanbul at the Rahmi M. Koç Museum through 31 December. The machines, built by Worldwide Museum Activities from da Vinci’s own manuscripts, were created by a large team of professionals. The materials used in the machines, which were manufactured in complete fidelity to the artist’s own notes, include linden, fir, beech and European oak. Visitors are allowed to touch and operate the machines in this exhibition, which is divided into five sections: Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Mechanisms. Curator of the interactive exhibition Emmanouil Koutsourelis says, “I viewed the machines as moving sculptures.” The Mechanisms section of the exhibition includes inventions pertaining to everyday life such as gears and lifting systems. Machines of war, cannons and machine guns constitute the ‘Fire’ section, and water-related inventions such as the Archimedean cork screw, used to harness the energy in water, make up the ‘Water’ section. While a printing press and robot design are displayed in the ‘Earth’ section, ‘Air’ includes parachutes and flying machines like the ornithopter bicycle. Thanks to this exhibition you will have an opportunity to actually touch, and be touched by, Leonardo da Vinci’s genius and awed by his intelligence. At the same time you will appreciate why this man is also a man of our century even five hundred years after his death.