Encountering Leonardo’s Scientific Imagination

Entering the darkened space that houses Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester and the Creative Mind, I begin to sense that this show is as unusual in its intimacy as in its subject matter. And while, of course, I’m familiar with Leonardo’s famous paintings, I am surprised to find a work of even truer genius in the Codex, the 500-year-old journal of one of history’s most enigmatic Renaissance men.

At the center of this exhibition are the words of a man whose creativity transcended the visual realm. Ambient low lighting and minimalistic design make the space one of great focus from which the chaotic scientific revelations of Leonardo da Vinci are illuminated against a subdued backdrop. This contrast inspires the sense of gravitas that such an important text commands. Individual sheets of the Codex are suspended between glass plates, allowing me to examine both sides of each page.

At first glimpse, what strikes me is the beautiful and very human inconsistencies in Leonardo’s handwriting–margins askew, ink stains, text trailing off toward the end of a line. The pages evoke the nostalgic image of a personal journal, a lab notebook. On closer look I observe that Leonardo’s steady calligraphic script, in his native Italian, is written in his characteristic right-to-left hand.

Individual sheets of the Codex are suspended between glass plates, illuminated against a subdued backdrop.

My eye then falls upon miniature illustrations–technical diagrams, even–dotted across the pages. Despite their size and scientific subject matter, it is clear that these pictures were executed by an artist of the finest caliber. Yet here, that artist is more concerned with the theories these drawings illustrate. Subtle shading on a series of water jugs takes a backseat to the motion of the water as it splashes forth. In this image the artist seeks to answer a puzzle of physics: the flow of water. The mechanics of the earth.

“Are tides generated by the moon or the sun, or are they made by the breathing of this earthly machine?” This is one of the many questions peppered throughout the text that Leonardo seeks to answer through a combination of logic, creativity, and reason. Nature as math. Math as nature. Astronomy, water, mechanics, light. Discussions of evaporation, the origin of fossils, the sounds made by earthquakes, the proper place to construct a dam, the nature of the moon.

The Codescopes are two intriguing interactive touchscreens that allow visitors to read the Codex in mirror image, in translation, and in paraphrase.In the spirit of Leonardo himself, the exhibition turns to technology to supplement the viewing experience. Enter the “Codescopes,” two intriguing interactive touchscreens that allow visitors to read the Codex in mirror image, in translation, and in paraphrase. The Codescopes transform the visitor experience by bestowing upon us the abilities of a learned art historian.

Upon a closer read, I note that the Codex represents a flood of ideas, a systematic working through of the logic of the natural world–a window into the creative mind that pursued one question only to fixate urgently upon another. “My concern now,” Leonardo writes, “is to find cases and inventions, gathering them as they occur to me.” This is no Last Supper. No Mona Lisa. No, the Codex is so much more personal, and in that, quite revelatory about the boundless imagination and curiosity of its author. It is a scientist’s notes to himself. His most intimate questions about the ordering of our physical world.

What is the art here? Is it the calligraphy? The pictograms? The ideas? Their scientific value? The sheer weight of history? For me the value of the Codex lies in all of the above.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top