Putting Leonardo's Inventions to the Test Boston's Museum of Science Looks at the Breathtaking Scope of Leonardo Da Vinci's Work, Though the Authenticity of Some Objects Is in Question

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When it comes to the works of the great Leonardo da Vinci, separating his authenticated art from the "might be authentic" has never been easy. In 15th-century Italy the custom for artists was to collaborate in a workshop under a master's direction. Works were seldom signed.

The issue of authenticity was raised again as Boston's Museum of Science this month opened the only United States venue for a major touring exhibition, "Leonardo da Vinci: Scientist, Inventor, Artist."

Although some art historians say that at the turn of the century nearly 100 works were considered to be Leonardo's, experts conclude that only five have earned near unanimous agreement and another six are in doubt. Two small sculptures and several paintings in the exhibition were questioned by experts in a Boston Globe article, though the labels in the exhibit identify the works as "attributed to," and include comments that Leonardo and his pupils may or may not have completed some of the work. "I am completely satisfied with the labeling," says David Ellis, director and president of the Museum of Science. "We were aware of the questions, and we felt we addressed those in a way that was appropriate to this institution." Less than a third of the exhibit focuses on Leonardo's art, and the rest explores his extraordinary work as a scientist and inventor. First shown in Malmo, Sweden, the exhibition has already been seen by more than a million people in six European cities. It is sponsored by the German automobile maker Mercedes-Benz and the International Watch Company (IWC) of Schaffhausen, Switzerland. In Boston, the exhibition has been expanded by the museum to include a dazzling array of hands-on activities, experiments, computerized information, and a multimedia show that reveal the work of a man considered to be a prophetic genius, and the spark of the Renaissance. Twenty-five models, built from Leonardo's sketches and plans, can be operated throughout it. A wide scope of works What few experts dispute, and what the exhibition celebrates, is the scope of Leonardo's imagination and interests. From anatomy to architecture, from his quirky, left-handed, backward writing in his voluminous notebooks to his interest in how and why birds fly, this exhibit details a man with a blueprint for the future. His inventive curiosity created an early form of bicycle, automobile, helicopter, military tank, steam-powered cannon, submarine, and parachute. Most of the drawings of these machines were done in his notebooks and were centuries ahead of the successful development of the inventions. Not long after Leonardo's death in 1519, scholars and art historians began the debate over authenticity of nearly every work of art, notebook page, or sketch believed to have come from his extraordinary imagination. …

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