The Drawings of a Master; A Fascinating Show at the Victoria and Albert Museum Leads a Re-Examination of the Beautiful Mind of the True Renaissance Man, Leonardo Da Vinci

Newsweek International, September 4, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Drawings of a Master; A Fascinating Show at the Victoria and Albert Museum Leads a Re-Examination of the Beautiful Mind of the True Renaissance Man, Leonardo Da Vinci


Byline: Tara Pepper

For half a millennium, scores of writers have struggled to make sense of the mystery that was Leonardo da Vinci. Was the man who made the Mona Lisa smile an artist? Was he a wacky inventor or a scientist? A visionary--or simply the product of a traumatic childhood? Intellectual greats from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to Walter Pater to Sigmund Freud have all tried to capture the character of the quintessential Renaissance man. More recently, Dan Brown's best seller "The Da Vinci Code" created a subversive side for him, asserting that da Vinci worked clues of an age-old conspiracy in the Roman Catholic Church into his large-scale 1498 painting "The Last Supper."

Brown's book is fiction. But new research into the Italian master is indeed generating fresh ideas about what made da Vinci tick. Since the 1880s, most of his 6,000 manuscripts have been published and translated, allowing the nature of da Vinci's genius to emerge from centuries of myth and speculation. These notebooks form the basis of a new exhibition at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, "Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design," which opens on Sept. 14. Through rarely seen manuscripts and drawings, large-scale models of his designs and computer animations, the exhibit illuminates da Vinci's bold, wide-ranging thought process. "Like Shakespeare or Newton, like all great figures, he remains perpetually surprising," says da Vinci scholar Martin Kemp, the exhibit's curator. "You look at those drawings in the original, and they are spine-tingling."

Split into four sections, the exhibit opens with "The Mind's Eye," an exploration of da Vinci's work on the connection between the eye and the brain, and his detailed studies of the proportional relationships between the parts of the face, torso and limbs. An illegitimate son, da Vinci never received the comprehensive education in the classics and natural philosophy enjoyed by some of his contemporaries. He always emphasized that he was a "disciple of ex-perience," a man "without book learning." And it was this lack of education that strengthened his determination to understand the laws of nature by close observation.

Da Vinci was prone to introspection, too. "The Lesser and Greater Worlds," the show's second stage, looks at his exploration of the ancient idea of microcosm and macrocosm--the belief that the human body contains a miniature model of the world and universe. In concert with his observations of nature, this philosophy enabled da Vinci to make broad intellectual leaps that are refreshing to contemplate today. …

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