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Leonardo da Vinci exhibit set to fill the halls at MAC

Thu., June 2, 2011

You’ve heard the term Renaissance Man?

Leonardo da Vinci is the reason that term exists. That’s why it takes not just one, but five museum galleries to do him justice.

Beginning Friday, the international traveling exhibit “Leonardo da Vinci: Man – Inventor – Genius” will fill all five main galleries (and a few smaller ones, as well) of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC). This is the first time the museum has devoted the entire building to one exhibit.

This exhibit contains 60 large models of da Vinci’s inventions, crafted mostly of wood and canvas, and 23 full-sized reproductions of his paintings, including “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper.”

Each gallery has a theme:

The War Room – It’s jammed with models of da Vinci’s tanks, rapid-fire cannons, catapults and other fearsome engines of war. The kids may be enthralled by the giant, whirling scythe blades mounted on a chariot, intended to cut a swath through enemy troops. Da Vinci was a military engineer for Cesare Borgia.

• The Flight Room – Filled with models of gliders, parachutes and an “air screw” (kind of like a primitive helicopter).

The Hydraulics Room – You’ll see a sort of foot-canoe contraption for “walking on water,” a paddleboat and a da Vinci design of the ancient “Screw of Archimedes,” in which visitors can turn a crank and pull water uphill. That’s just one of 16 hands-on models that visitors can operate and/or manipulate.

The Theater Room – Here, you can watch videos about da Vinci and his times. It also contains some artworks and models.

The Mechanical Room – You’ll see lots of cog-and-pulley contraptions, not to mention an “automobile device” driven by springs. Da Vinci served some time as an architect and engineer to the King Louis XII of France.

More than a mere “room,” this is actually the MAC’s large, open exhibit space and it contains many of the 23 reproductions of da Vinci’s paintings. You can’t miss one of them: “The Last Supper” takes up one entire wall at 28 feet wide. This room also contains a little enclosure called “The Mirror Room” which illustrates some of his ideas about optics.

The Mona Lisa Room – You might call this a sixth gallery, but it is actually the MAC’s small, round solarium. There you’ll see the full-size reproduction of “Mona Lisa,” one of the most famous paintings of all time. You’ll also learn how it has reverberated through the centuries, inspiring Marcel Duchamp to paint a goatee and mustache on the inscrutable lady.

In addition to all of this, there will be computer kiosks allowing visitors to “manipulate” his inventions, and teen docents wheeling around carts filled with activities for kids.

Note that we use the term “reproduction” in referring to the artworks in this exhibit. They are not, of course, the original paintings, which are priceless and carefully guarded.

Two of the exhibit’s installers – Philip Zoch and Sebastian Schubert of Vienna – said the pictures are “reproduction prints” which have been produced with the goal of making them as close to the originals as possible, although with the colors cleaned up and “refreshed.”

This exhibit contains reproductions of all of da Vinci’s known paintings, ranging in size from the enormous “Last Supper,” the original of which was painted directly onto the wall of a Milan monastery, to the surprisingly petite “Mona Lisa,” which is just a little over 2 feet high.

It’s a chance to study some of his less famous – but equally revered – works such as the “Virgin of the Rocks,” also known as “Madonna in the Cave.”

Schubert said the exhibit’s 60 mostly wooden models are based on drawing and plans found in da Vinci’s notebooks, and were constructed by a family of Italian craftsmen that specialize in these kinds of museum pieces.

Many of them are in working order – and in some cases, visitors can watch these objects at work.

“You wouldn’t believe how many things he invented that we use every day,” said Schubert.

He said the exhibit comes to Spokane after stints in Chicago; Fort Worth, Texas; Detroit; Montreal; and Seattle’s Museum of Flight, among other stops.

It was organized by Exhibit Development Group of St. Paul, Minn., and Washington, D.C., and Event Marketing Services, which is based in Vienna.

As befits the original Renaissance Man, the exhibit is a combination of the artistic with the practical and of the aesthetic with the mechanical.

If you spend enough time exploring it, you might understand why da Vinci was one of those rare humans who was considered, even during his lifetime, to be endowed with transcendent “beauty, grace and talent,” according to one early biographer.

The Inland Northwest has all summer to study his mind and works; the exhibit runs until Sept. 5.

Dozens of school groups and youth groups are already booked. Museum officials predict between 40,000 and 50,000 visitors by the time the summer is over.

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