San Diego – land of sun, palm trees, and surfer dudes – is not where I expected to find the brain of Leonardo da Vinci on display. But in Balboa Park in downtown San Diego that’s exactly what I discovered.
At the Air and Space Museum’s Da Vinci exhibit (on now through January 2017), many of Leonardo’s inventions — drawn in his famous notebooks — are brought to life as wooden models that you can walk around and inspect.
I particularly enjoyed the exhibit because some of these inventions are featured in my novel, Oil and Marble — including the multi-barrel cannoned military tank:
The mirror box (step inside and close the door for a kaleidoscopic view of your latest outfit):
And oh so many flying machines. (Leonardo was obsessed with flight; he would have loved knowing that his exhibit was housed inside an Air and Space Museum. Did you know Leonardo drew a design for a drone over 500 years ago? He once said, “For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.”)
I love getting to walk amongst Leonardo’s inventions and explore them in three-dimensions. I’ve seen exhibitions similar to this one, where Leonardo’s inventions are recreated. But this one was different. In the best way.
Here, Leonardo’s engineering feats are displayed right along side reproductions of the maestro‘s paintings. As you’re looking up at Leonardo’s design for a parachute, there’s the Last Supper looming in the background.
There’s his arial screw (the precursor to the helicopter) in front of the Annunciation, one of his earliest masterpieces.
Many exhibits treat Leonardo as either artist OR scientist, and even if they do include both his engineering AND art feats, they separate his inventions and his art work. Or, if they combine them, they do so in a more linear or forced way…
But this exhibit made these connections in a subtler more organic way. All around, the art and the engineering were intertwined. This exhibit allowed Leonardo’s varied obsessions to clash together.
This feels appropriate because it’s how Leonardo’s brain worked. He studied optics, biology, hydrology, art, music, anatomy and let them bump into each other to make new and exciting discoveries. In Leonardo’s mind, music feeds science, feeds art. He’s one of the only people I know who, when designing a building, begins by drawing the petals of a flower.
There’s a scene in Oil and Marble when Michelangelo first wanders through Leonardo da Vinci’s studio, and he’s mesmerized by all of the strange things contained inside… I love that moment because I think of Leonardo’s studio back then as his imagination turned inside out, come to life for the whole world to see. That’s how I felt walking through this exhibit, as if the Master from Vinci’s brain had been cracked open for my own enjoyment. And for this Leonardo geek, there’s no better amusement park in the world.
On Thursday night, the California portion of the book tour ended with a fabulous event at Warwick’s Bookshop in La Jolla. It was another packed house, and yet again we sold out of books.
It was a particularly lovely evening for me because Warwicks is just down the street from where my husband grew up in Pacific Beach. We were surrounded by family, including our nine-year old nephew who sat in the front row, asked questions, and proudly told strangers his aunt had written Oil and Marble. Also in attendance were my husband’s high school classmates from Mission Bay and a group of teachers from High Tech Middle in Chula Vista where I’d spoken to students about art and writing. I also had one friend in the crowd who I’ve known for over twenty years; we toured Europe together as part of a choir when we were 18. That was my first trip to Europe, my first time to see the Mona Lisa, so it was touching to have him there to witness this moment.
And in that lovely independent bookstore, surrounded by people I love, I thought of Leonardo once again. Gutenberg’s printing press was invented around the time Leonardo da Vinci was born. Leonardo and books came of age side by side. His world was rocked by books, just as our world is rocked by the internet today.
As I stood among all of those books, I couldn’t help but wonder what Leonardo would have made of our modern world. He would’ve been in awe of the number of books in that single bookstore and giddy over the information in a single iPhone.
But I think more than anything he would’ve loved to have been sitting next to me on Friday, flying from San Diego to Denver, over the Rockies, in an airplane.
All of our information and technology would have meant nothing to him in comparison to this. He would’ve gotten up here, and he never would’ve come back down.