Realizing the genius of Leonardo da Vinci

by Mio Yamada

A temporary pavilion in Tokyo’s Hibiya Park seems like an unlikely venue for showcasing the hallowed works of Leonardo da Vinci, but for this particular exhibition, the big top-like structure is appropriate. “Leonardo da Vinci: The Genius” is aimed straight at the general public. Designed, produced, branded and marketed by Grande Exhibitions, the company that is also behind the traveling exhibitions “Planet Shark,” “Van Gogh Alive” and “Game On,” “The Genius” is about edutainment — showing the great master to the general public in an accessible and entertaining way.

Would-be art thieves, take note, though. There is not one authentic piece by Leonardo in the park. The real “Mona Lisa” is still in a bullet-proof glass case at the Louvre in Paris and his codexes are safe in the hands of various libraries, museums and Bill Gates. This show is more about presentation than authenticity, and it teaches by showing not telling. Its numerous replicas and models demonstrate the wide range of his interests but also the full spectrum of the arts and sciences.

Though possibly only 20 Leonardo paintings have survived to today, around 6,000 pages of his codexes still exist, including the Codex Forster collection of mathematic and geometry writings and the Codex Leicester of scientific observations — which is where “The Genius” begins.

Faithful replicas of such notebooks show how he crammed detailed information and intricate sketches onto tiny pages, sometimes as small as 10 x 14.5 cm. Written in his famous “mirror-writing” and seemingly comprised of random thoughts, observations and inventions, these codexes reveal the restless yet observant mind that has inspired other artists, fiction writers and even self-help experts. Re-interpretations of sketches such as the “Vitruvian Man” and books such as Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” and Michael J. Gelb’s “How to think like Leonardo da Vinci” have all contributed to the popularity of Leonardo today. Sadly, some of that popularity is based on fictional or dubious information, something that “The Genius” aims to set right.

It’s not the first major exhibition to realize sketches from Leonardo’s notebooks, but it is perhaps the most comprehensive exhibition to do so. It brings together large-scale models of his inventions — including military weapons, engineering devices, flying contraptions, stage props — as well as reproductions of his sketches, anatomical drawings and paintings.

Fully functional pulley, ball-bearing and gear systems that visitors can manipulate remind us of Leonardo’s aptitude for engineering and mathematics, while life-size prototypes of the helicopter, tank and parachute point to a visionary imagination. Then there are few surprises. His unusual theater props, such as the “self-propelled car,” designed to make the stage dynamic; the first “robot,” an automaton that can sit, stand and wave its arms around; and the “SCUBA” (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus).

One of the most interesting exhibits, however, is not a tangible realization of a Leonardo sketch. The “Secrets of Mona Lisa,” which replicates the famous painting in minute detail using digital photographic technology, allows visitors to get so close to Mona Lisa, it’s almost better than seeing the real thing.

In 2004, in an unprecented move, the French government gave Pascal Cotte, a scientific engineer and founder of Lumiere Technology, three hours to photograph the “Mona Lisa” outside of its frame. Using a multi-spectral camera, Pascal’s own invention, the “Mona Lisa” was scanned in 13 channels from ultraviolet to infra red. By doing this, every pixel of the image could be analyzed and given a spectral curve, from which the pixels of the painting’s varnish could be isolated and “removed.” In simple terms, Pascal could reprint the “Mona Lisa” without the layer of varnish that dulled it and reveal its original colors.

The results are extraordinary. Mona Lisa is rosy cheeked, trees are greener and the landscape is an eerie azure blue, apparently because Leonardo understood that colors change to blue as they go through more atmosphere. With another two years of photographic investigation, Cotte produced more findings on the “Mona Lisa,” 25 of which are explained at the exhibition.

Some might argue that such detailed analysis of the image diminishes the alluring mystery of Mona Lisa: Her smile is different, perhaps less enigmatic, and we discover that the blotches on her face that once led critics to believe she was ill are in fact varnish blemishes. It is true that in her original colors, she appears to be a far more ordinary subject than once thought. But how much mystery was really there in the first place?

We already know Mona Lisa is Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, a noblewoman of rural origins, as was discovered at the Heidelberg University library in a 1503 text written by an aquaintance of Leonardo. Seeing the “Mona Lisa” in her original glory offers different surprises, especially when blown up to giant proportions to reveal details that we could never see in the Louvre. In magnified versions of her eyes, we even see faint evidence of an eyebrow hair, suggesting that she originally was not the strange eyelashless and eyebrowless beauty we see her as now.

Equally impressive is the opportunity to view “The Last Supper,” another painting that has caused much speculation: Who is the mysterious woman by Jesus’ side? Are all the different hand gestures of the disciples symbolic? As Leonardo’s most famous painting and only known surviving fresco, “The Last Supper” in the Santa Maria della Grazie church in Milan, Italy, can only be viewed if tickets are booked far in advance. Its size, 8.8 x 4.4 meters, also made it difficult to make a life-size duplication. High-definition photography, however, means that it can now be projected in its original size anywhere in the world.

The benefits any museum may get from borrowing masterpieces are often outweighed by the cost of insurance, transport and security measures — not to mention the possible disputes over any resulting damage. It won’t please the purists, but edutainment using high quality replicas could be the way forward for international exhibitions on masters as popular as Leonardo. You might be privileged enough to one day see the originals, but in the meantime, “The Genius” experience is the next best thing.

“Da Vinci: The Genius” at Hibiya Park runs till Feb. 20; admission ¥1,800; open 10 a.m- 9 p.m. (Sun., Mon. till 6 p.m.). For more information, visit davinci-japan.com. A ticket giveaway for the exhibition will be in the Feb. 4th edition of The Japan Times.