Museum  May 2, 2019  Colleen Smith

Leonardo da Vinci: 500 Years of Genius

© Grande Exhibitions

Installation view of The SENSORY4 experience, which compels you to leave behind the world as you know it. The moment you enter, a powerful and vibrant symphony of light, color and sound immerses you in Leonardo’s genius.

500 years after his death on May 2, 1519, the accomplishments of Leonardo da Vinci, the quintessential Renaissance man, are still astounding. In a year marked by exhibitions and celebrations around the world, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science is commemorating the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s death with the most comprehensive exhibition ever presented on his life's work. Leonardo da Vinci: 500 Years of Genius shows through August 25.

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Salvator Mundi

Born illegitimately and thus denied a formal education, da Vinci lived his life as a painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, anatomist, and philosopher, and died on May 2, 1519.  Da Vinci’s half-millennium legacy includes the enigmatic Mona Lisa. One of the most famous paintings in art history, Mona Lisa was among the first portraits to include a landscape background depicting depth perception. A high point in the Mile High City’s exhibit is “The Secrets of Mona Lisa”—an analysis of the painting conducted by the Louvre, which displays the never-finished oil-on-wood portrait in Paris.

In 2017, da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi—also known as the “Male Mona Lisa”—made history when the masterpiece brought $450,312,500 and became the most expensive painting ever sold at auction, more than doubling the previous record. The painting continues to be shrouded in mystery, as its new owner, a Saudi prince acting as an agent for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, has yet to put it on public display.

An educator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Samantha Sands emphasized several of da Vinci’s pioneering contributions to art. “Leonardo understood perspective. He used sfumato, the blurring of edges that happens naturally with our eyes and makes his art look so realistic,” she said.

© Grande Exhibitions

Installation view of The SENSORY4 experience, which compels you to leave behind the world as you know it. The moment you enter, a powerful and vibrant symphony of light, color and sound immerses you in Leonardo’s genius.

Da Vinci veered from tradition when painting the Christ child.  “At the time, a lot of painters depicted Jesus with a baby body, but a full-grown-adult head,” Sands said. “Leonardo painted a round, pudgy, adorable baby head which was controversial.”

Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings, another component of the exhibit, also provided innovations in the visual and medical arts. The artist worked with an anatomist, Professor Marcantonio della Torre.

“Dissecting humans was frowned upon by the Catholic Church, but Leonardo was fascinated by the human form and realized the medical value of anatomical drawings. While Marcantonio dissected, Leonardo drew,” Sands said. “He drew the first fetus in the womb and also depicted hardening of the arteries before anybody knew about the condition. He also drew grotesques—people who were old or had deformities—and nobody else was doing that at the time.”

Visitors explore interactive models of da Vinci's inventions.
© Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Visitors explore interactive models of da Vinci's inventions.

Machines: Leonardo was the first to examine the challenge of human flight from a scientific perspective
© Grande Exhibitions

Machines: Leonardo was the first to examine the challenge of human flight from a scientific perspective. His ideas foreshadowed the gliders, airplanes, helicopters and parachutes of today.

Visitors explore interactive models of da Vinci's inventions.
© Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Visitors explore interactive models of da Vinci's inventions.

Visitors explore interactive models of da Vinci's inventions.
© Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Visitors explore interactive models of da Vinci's inventions.

Visitors explore interactive models of da Vinci's inventions.
© Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Visitors explore interactive models of da Vinci's inventions.

Historical re-enactors in period costumes help visitors get into the Renaissance spirit.
© Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Historical re-enactors in period costumes help visitors get into the Renaissance spirit.

The exhibit also showcases nearly 70 machines designed and painstakingly sketched by da Vinci yet never built until about 10 years ago. Interactive installations of da Vinci’s bridge and catapult mingle with his flying machines, an automobile, a bicycle, a submarine and military weapons—all constructed to da Vinci’s specifications with materials available during the Renaissance.  

“The machines were made only because we have Leonardo’s drawings that were so accurate,” Sands said. “He set the standard for modern engineering drawings.”

Historical re-enactors in period costumes, replicas of da Vinci’s notebooks penned in his right-to-left mirror-image script, and a cinematic glimpse into his genius mind round out the exhibition.

© Grande Exhibitions

The exhibition features carefully crafted replicas of Leonardo’s codices, books of notes and sketches that remain the primary insight to his genius. The codices were used as “instruction manuals” to build the machine inventions on display.

Though focused on nature and science, for the da Vinci exhibit the museum broadened their usual STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) curriculum to STEAM, adding an “A” for art. Museum spokesperson Maura O’Neal said, “Adding Leonardo’s art makes this exhibition a perfect blend that falls into our realm. Our CEO loves to talk about not leaving art out because often that’s the gateway, the path people find to explore a variety of topics. Visitors who experience this exhibit can be inspired to find outlets for their own creative expression.”

About the Author

Colleen Smith

Colleen Smith is a longtime arts writer based in Denver.

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