Leonardo through the looking glass
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Leonardo through the looking glass

Wed 05 Dec 2018 10:00 AM

Artist, mathematician, engineer, scientist, wonderer, thinker: if he were alive now, Leonardo da Vinci might be a modern-day Bill Gates, a Steve Jobs, maybe even an Elon Musk. Ahead of his time and a pusher of the boundaries of human possibility, he was the emblematic Renaissance man, ready to explore every field of study and offer up his musings about any and all subjects. But, of course, we already know all this about the great Leonardo da Vinci.

Ahead of the quincentenary of Leonardo’s death in 2019, the Uffizi Gallery has taken a unique approach, moving away from the concept of Leonardo as an artist, despite owning several of his most famous paintings, and focusing on a seemingly banal, yet wholly Leonardesque subject: his writings on water.

Water as Microscope. Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester explores the master’s research of all things water through the lens of his codex, written between 1504 and 1508. The 72 pages of writings and sketches are on display in the Uffizi’s Aula Magliabechiana almost 40 years after they were last in Florence, when they were displayed in the Palazzo Vecchio under the name “Codex Hammer”. What a difference four decades can make: one of the highlights of this exhibition is the Codescope, an innovative touchscreen tool that allows visitors to dive deeper into the codex than ever before thanks to digital transcriptions and translations. Visitors can explore each page of Leonardo’s text, presented in their original backwards writing, though there’s an option to “mirror” the page so it becomes readable, making use of a sort of magnifying glass to focus on different parts. The Codescope also provides educational context to the codex, essential for understanding Leonardo’s thinking and what influenced him in his research.

Exhibition organizers face an uphill battle when it comes to presenting the subject of science in an understandable and enjoyable manner (think science museums and their primarily interactive exhibits), and the curators behind Water as Microscope took special care to ensure that their approach would fit the bill.

In addition to the Codescope, there are exhibits, digital models and videos that enable museum goers to “follow Leonardo’s complex reasoning on the physics of the elements and to be a privileged spectator of the replication both of the experiments that he actually performed and of those that he conceived as tools to verify the hypotheses that he was formulating on phenomena outside the scope of the human senses,” explained Paolo Galluzzi, curator of the exhibition and director of the Museo Galileo. One such example is a video animation of Leonardo’s theoretical crane for digging out water channels, bringing his drawings to life to help visitors better understand the genius’s way of thinking.

While the setup is in line with what one might expect from an exhibition where sheets of paper are the primary focus, the overall effect doesn’t always lend itself to the organizers’ goals. Apart from the engaging Codescope and the video animations, the catchy display and attractive wall texts, the presentation of the subject matter is somewhat stiff and uninviting. For the occasional museum goer and those only passingly interested in Leonardo da Vinci, especially the man as an engineer and scientist rather than as a painter, Water as Microscope risks being highbrow. But this is Leonardo we’re talking about, a name whose mention alone draws in the crowds out of pure curiosity. Then there’s the magical effect of observing historical documents, knowing they have existed for centuries, that the great men and women we have always studied once touched the objects we’re now looking at. What better way to grab our attention than authentic writings by Leonardo da Vinci?

Il Codice Leicester di Leonardo da Vinci. L’acqua microscopio della Natura
Uffizi, Aula Magliabechiana
Until January 20, 2019

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