Da Vinci the Genius?

Da Vinci Exhibit at MOSI

Da Vinci Exhibit at MOSI

MOSI1 is currently hosting the ‘Da Vinci the Genius‘ exhibition, which is described as:

…the most comprehensive and inspiring exhibition about the man who is arguably the greatest genius the world has ever seen. Working from Leonardo’s codices, Italian Artisans have faithfully crafted interactive and life-size machine inventions. These works include the first concepts of a car, bicycle, helicopter, glider, parachute, SCUBA, submarine, military tank and ideal city to name a few. In addition the exhibit moves far beyond machine inventions alone, featuring facsimiles of Leonardo’s most famous codices, anatomical studies, Anghiari battle drawings and Renaissance art. A recent addition is the high definition recreation of The Last Supper at actual size (29 x 14.5ft) an impressive display that compliments the existing 3D animations explaining the Sforza Horse, Mona Lisa and Vitruvian Man. Da Vinci – The Genius also includes the world exclusive Secrets of Mona Lisa – an analysis of the iconic painting, conducted at the Louvre Museum by renowned scientific engineer, examiner and photographer of fine art, Pascal Cotte. Suitable for all ages, this amazing exhibition provides a fascinating insight into not only the mind of a genius; but also into the fundamental scientific and artistic principles that he discovered.

It’s a travelling exhibition so it may be coming to a town near you. I saw this exhibit a short time ago, and it set me to thinking if the exhibition quote, ‘the greatest genius the world has ever seen’, is really true?

Looking at the work on display and the catalogue of archived work not directly available – and taking into account the additional exhibits last year, loaned from the Royal Collection, and displayed at the Manchester City Art Gallery it seems to me that Da Vinci was obvious a genius ‘artist’. His attention to detail make his illustrations both technical and accurate – and this feeling for his work imbues the paintings with emotion and energy. As an Engineer, to me he seems to have the craft based approaches reasonably well mastered with many of his ideas for siege engines, arms, and machines of war, accurately designed and practically well executed. With regard to flying machines, town plans, and other aspects of more scientific based work it seems to me that Da Vinci was a competent scientist but by no means a genius. I mainly come to this conclusion because in most of the work there is no really deep understanding of why something is happening and no real transformational knowledge derived.

Now, it also seems to me that we talk of Da Vinci as being a renascence man, that his genius was bound up in part to the plurality of his understanding, indeed, that he was a polymath. However, let us consider this in the context of the divide that existed at the time. This divide can be best summarised as having ‘Art’ on one side and ‘Natural Philosophy’ on the other, however these two domains had very different meanings than they do today. Previously ‘Art’ was meant to indicate ‘everything created by man’ while Natural Philosophy meant ‘the study of everything created by God’. When we take into account these definitions then Da Vinci was certainly and artistic genius, the domains of painting, sculpture, and engineering existing all together and not as distanced as we see them today. Further, Da Vinci’s drawings of anatomy are great studies of Natural Philosophy (as God made man) but do these alone suggest genius?

In my opinion, no; it seems to me that the pursuit of understand – of ‘why?’ (not just ‘how’) is the mark of a truly great scientist in this regard. Da Vinci seems very focused on the ‘How’ part but without much comprehension of ‘why’. So, an artistic genius without doubt, a great polymath –  absolutely, a genius scientist – not really.


  1. Without doubt I think that the Museum of Science and Industry at Manchester (UK) is one of the best industrial museums in the world and further, that it is *the* best of its type.

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