October 30, 1997 in Features

Leonardo’s Legacy Da Vince Exhibit Pairs Master With His Followers

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Even the city of Florence can’t be this Leonardo-crazy.

In Seattle, it seems as if Leonardo da Vinci has replaced Shawn Kemp as the resident Big Man. There are Leonardo hotel packages, Leonardo Italian restaurant menus, Leonardo plays and Leonardo lectures.

Not that Leonardo hasn’t earned his hype: Who deserves it more than a true Renaissance genius? But the real reason for Seattle’s Leonardo-saturation is this: Bill Gates bought him and wants to show him off.

Gates bought Leonardo’s Codex Leicester at auction for $30.8 million in 1994. Seattle finally began enjoying the fruits of that munificence last Thursday when the Seattle Art Museum opened “Leonardo Lives: The Codex Leicester and Leonardo da Vinci’s Legacy of Art and Science,” with the newly acquired manuscript as its centerpiece.

The key word here is centerpiece, because taken alone, the 72 pages of the Codex Leicester do not make scintillating viewing. They are written backward and in Italian; they are mostly about things like hydraulics; they can be illuminated only by dim light; and they are, after all, only notebooks. They are not polished works of art like the “Mona Lisa.”

However, based on a preview showing last week, the Seattle Art Museum has done a fine job of interpreting the manuscript and surrounding it with related artworks.

These related artworks are divided into two rooms, one for Renaissance art and one for contemporary art. The Renaissance room has no Leonardo paintings, a disappointment, but understandable since only 17 Leonardo paintings are in existence, and none can be blithely loaned out.

However, the exhibit does have some Leonardo drawings: a drapery study, a man on a horse, a bear and a grotesque old woman. A portrait by Verrochio, to whom Leonardo was apprenticed, and some obscure works by Leonardo’s followers round out the exhibit. We found these to be interesting, but not exactly earth-shaking. Seattle Post-Intelligencer art critic Regina Hackett called them “exceedingly modest.”

The other room contains contemporary art, mostly smart-aleck 20th century ironic twists on Leonardo’s most famous work, “Mona Lisa.”

Andy Warhol’s 1963 “Mona Lisa” is actually a huge canvas covered with 24 cheap-looking images of the famous painting. Robert Rauschenberg’s 1980 “Untitled (Captiva, Florida)” shows the “Mona Lisa” draped over the back of a director’s chair. Most sarcastic of all is Robert Arneson’s 1976 “George and Mona in the Baths of Coloma,” a sculpture which shows the heads of George Washington and Mona Lisa in a hot tub. Could this explain what those enigmatic smiles are all about?

Leonardo’s second-most-famous painting, “The Last Supper,” doesn’t get off scot-free. A paint-by-numbers version is included.

These exhibits flank the Codex itself, mounted on 18 separate pedestals that make the room look somewhat like a dimly-lit forest. The manuscript pages are illuminated for only one minute in every five-minute cycle. The pages are visible even when dark, but we found ourselves racing from one lit-up pedestal to another.

Many of the drawings are fascinating in their grace and precision. You’ll see suns, moons, waves, water-courses and waterfalls. Yet the words will be a lost cause for most of us, since the left-handed Leonardo wrote in mirror-image in archaic Italian.

That’s where the Gates-ian technology comes to the rescue. Two dozen computer stations line the exhibit. “Codescope,” an ingenious CD-ROM program made by the Corbis Corp., gives you an instant translation of any part of the Codex. Be warned that even in translation, a lot of it is complicated, baffling and sometimes disconnected.

Some advice: Check out the synopses, also contained in the Codescope. Here, you can pick up the general ideas on each manuscript page - the movement of water, the composition of the moon, the design of bridges - choosing the ones you want to pursue more deeply.

Be sure to watch the continuously running nine-minute film about Leonardo’s life and his Codex. This gave a good feel for Leonardo’s historical place.

We found the most enjoyable part of the entire experience came in “Leonardo’s Laboratory,” a hands-on science lab a few floors down. There, we could actually test some of Leonardo’s theories about running water, light and levers.

“I wanna stay,” wailed one visitor. “I haven’t played with all of the toys yet.”

He was about 35.

The Seattle Art Museum is going all-out with cross-promotions for this exhibit. The Seattle Repertory Theatre is staging a play titled “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci,” based on his writings. Eleven Italian restaurants are offering special Leonardo menus and discounts for those with ticket stubs.

Also, the following Seattle hotels are offering special Leonardo packages, most of which include admission and one night’s accommodation: The Alexis Hotel, Cavanaugh’s On Fifth Avenue, Crowne Plaza-Seattle, The Edgewater, Four Seasons Olympic Hotel, Hotel Vintage Park, Inn at Harbor Steps, Inn at the Market, The Madison, Seattle Hilton, Sorrento Hotel and the Warwick Hotel.

In the preface to the official catalog, Gates writes that he knew the exhibit would be “great for Seattle” because “this is a city fueled by innovations in technology, aviation and the arts.” Certainly, the Seattle Art Museum’s expectations couldn’t be higher. They predict it will be one of best-attended exhibits in the museum’s history.

Visitors, however, should keep their expectations modest. This is not a grand visual spectacle, like the King Tut exhibit. This is a more cerebral pleasure, which succeeds better as science than as art. Warhol’s “Mona Lisa” may not tell you anything whatsoever about Leonardo the man, but visitors who take advantage of the entire exhibit, including the computer stations, should come away with a far better understanding than before about Leonardo’s genius.

Gates writes in his preface that Leonardo’s notebooks are “awe inspiring not simply as repositories of remarkable ideas, but as records of a great mind at work.”

In that sense, “Leonardo Lives” is mostly an excuse to get into the mind of Leonardo. Any excuse is a good one.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (2 color)

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story:

1. JOURNEY TO SEATTLE

The Codex Leicester’s journey to Seattle

1508-1510 Leonardo writes the codex in Milan and Florence.

1690 - Painter Giuseppe Ghezzi discovers the codex in a chest in Rome.

1717 - Purchased by Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester, and kept at his estate for the next 263 years.

1980 - Purchased at auction by American businessman Armand Hammer, who renames it the Codex Hammer.

1994 - After Hammer’s death, codex is sold at auction to Bill Gates, who restores the name Codex Leicester.

2. ART EXHIBIT

The exhibit “Leonardo Lives: The Codex Leicester and Leonardo da Vinci’s Legacy of Art and Science” is on display through Jan. 4 at the Seattle Art Museum, 100 University St. (downtown Seattle).

Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for seniors and children 7-12. Tickets are sold for a specific time and date, and can be purchased in advance at Ticketmaster outlets (Pay Less Drug Stores in Spokane) or by calling (509) 735-0500.

Tickets for same-day admission are also available at the museum. Hours are Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. JOURNEY TO SEATTLE The Codex Leicester’s journey to Seattle 1508-1510 Leonardo writes the codex in Milan and Florence. 1690 - Painter Giuseppe Ghezzi discovers the codex in a chest in Rome. 1717 - Purchased by Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester, and kept at his estate for the next 263 years. 1980 - Purchased at auction by American businessman Armand Hammer, who renames it the Codex Hammer. 1994 - After Hammer’s death, codex is sold at auction to Bill Gates, who restores the name Codex Leicester.

2. ART EXHIBIT The exhibit “Leonardo Lives: The Codex Leicester and Leonardo da Vinci’s Legacy of Art and Science” is on display through Jan. 4 at the Seattle Art Museum, 100 University St. (downtown Seattle). Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for seniors and children 7-12. Tickets are sold for a specific time and date, and can be purchased in advance at Ticketmaster outlets (Pay Less Drug Stores in Spokane) or by calling (509) 735-0500. Tickets for same-day admission are also available at the museum. Hours are Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.


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