Second-guessing Leonardo Da Vinci backwards

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mona lisa

The Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition arrived at the Burnie Art Gallery in Tasmania recently.

Nothing much comes to Burnie — let alone a major art exhibition — so I organised an excursion for my senior Digital Design class.

Unfortunately, we were unable to wander around the exhibition without being subjected to a tour first.

Thus we met our guide whose knowledge of Da Vinci extended to hastily read notes already written on the exhibit plaques.

But this didn’t stop her from telling us all about Da Vinci and his various flight, water and war machines, the latter consisting of ladders. There were retractable ladders, pikes in ladders, rope ladders and hoist ladders, all reconstructed from his drawings.

All except for one bizarre heap which the guide reluctantly admitted the gallery staff had put together backwards.

Anyway, she told us Da Vinci designed lots of ladders because medieval Italy was divided into many warring cities.

She then pointed to a firefighter-like retractable ladder propped against a model of a small wall. In real life, the wall would have been at least 40 feet high as a defence against any invading hordes outside the city gates.  Da Vinci’s ladder would enable solders to scale the wall, jump off the top and thus breach the city’s defences.

But something didn’t make sense.

I told the guide that the wall looked too high for soldiers to be jumping from, particularly in heavy armour and carrying swords. She shrugged and said that all sorts of things went on in war. I replied that might be true, but you don’t want to kill all your soldiers first by jumping off 40 foot walls.

She waved her hand dismissively and hastily moved on to an exhibit with a crank that extracted water from the ground like a bore. This looked a lot more logical than jumping suicidal soldiers until she turned the crank and water spilled over the floor (which demonstrated another exhibit that had been constructed backwards).

The rest of the tour didn’t get much better until we reached the art section where our guide noticeably relaxed in front of a Mona Lisa replica and spent ten minutes talking about nose smudging. She explained how Da Vinci discovered an innovative art technique which clearly demonstrated his genius.  I’d assumed his genius had been adequately established by the flying and underwater equipment, ladders and pulleys but that the nose smudging was just an afterthought.

Which made me wonder how much we really know about Da Vinci and whether more than a few strategic errors and assumptions have been made about his intentions. Not only had exhibits in this gallery been constructed backwards but maybe they weren’t even meant to be constructed at all.

Much of Da Vinci’s notebooks were destroyed or scattered after his death and what we have left is only a fraction of his prodigious output. We know that Da Vinci designed prototypes for scuba diving gear, hangliders, parachutes and helicopters, but context is often missing.

Maybe sketches in his notebook of retractable ladders were accompanied on the very next page by soldiers wearing his parachute designs. Or Da Vinci probably assumed they’d be carrying sturdy rope if they were climbing walls, or even a second retractable ladder and therefore didn’t bother annotating the obvious.

Which only demonstrates that filling in the gaps with inaccurate guesses is as stupid as reconstructing his designs backwards.

Leonardo Da Vinci was a genius. It’s unfortunate that the rest of us are not.

Sue Bell

Sue Bell is an entertainment writer and author of Backpacked: A mostly true story, Beat Street and When Dreamworks came to Stanley.

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