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Renaissance Man

A blockbuster exhibition on Leonardo da Vinci’s life and work is on view in Denver.

Leonardo’s famous drawing of the Vitruvian Man was based on the theories of Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius (first century B.C.), describing the perfect human form in geometrical terms.

Leonardo’s famous drawing of the Vitruvian Man was based on the theories of Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius (first century B.C.), describing the perfect human form in geometrical terms.

Leonardo da Vinci, (1452–1519), the ultimate Renaissance man, comes to life at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS) in Leonardo da Vinci: 500 Years of Genius, which runs through August 25.

As an inventor, artist, scientist, anatomist, engineer, architect, sculptor, and philosopher, Leonardo (as he’s commonly known) has an extraordinary legacy and influence that endures to this day. A true and brilliant polymath known primarily for some of the world’s greatest works of art, Leonardo was a prodigious inventor, and this is the exhibition’s focus.

Museum visitors are introduced to Leonardo through replicas of his codices that were carefully re-created in Italy. These famous books of his handwritten notes and sketches remain the primary insight to his genius. The exhibition’s organizers, Grande Exhibitions of Australia in collaboration with Italian artisans, built models of Leonardo’s inventions using his detailed concepts, and 70 of them are on display.

Visitors are also immersed in Leonardo’s works through a multisensory cinematic experience using Grande Exhibitions’ state-of-the-art SENSORY4 technology. High-definition motion graphics and surround sound combined with authentic photography and video footage saturate the gallery in a breathtaking display of the codices, computer-generated imagery, and art.

As a fun activity, you can test a Leonardo-inspired catapult and create your own codex page with a self-portrait or still life. The museum’s historical enactors are also on hand to bring a personal perspective to Leonardo’s story.

Leonardo was born in the small town of Vinci (hence, Leonardo da [from] Vinci) outside Florence, Italy, the illegitimate son of a lawyer, Ser Piero, and a peasant girl, Caterina. At 15, he was apprenticed to well-known artist Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence, where he spent nearly a decade developing his painting and studying engineering. Along the way, and continuing throughout his life, he became increasingly obsessed with experiments and scientific projects—so much so that they interfered with his artistic commissions, and he became notorious for not finishing anything. Fewer than 20 of his paintings exist today.

On display at the DMNS are prints of Leonardo’s art and the exclusive “Secrets of Mona Lisa,” an analysis of the iconic painting conducted at the Louvre by scientific engineer and photographer Pascal Cotte. Also included are unique super-magnified examinations and the only 360° replica ever made of Mona Lisa as well as a stunning display of his famous Vitruvian Man.

Leonardo’s Obsessions: A look at a few of the master's greatest experiments.

Leonardo’s fundamental scientific and artistic principles continue to impact the world today. They laid the groundwork for inventions that include today’s helicopter, airplane, automobile, submarine, parachute, SCUBA gear, and armored tank.

Leonardo was fascinated by human anatomy and spent long hours dissecting cadavers to understand how the human body worked. Although a 15th-century robot might be beyond belief, Leonardo designed and built the first precursor to the modern robot in 1495. Known as his “robotic knight,” it may not have been R2-D2 or C-3P0, but it could actually sit, walk, lift its visor, and move its jaw.

In 2000, American roboticist Mark Rosheim—author of Leonardo’s Lost Robots and a robot designer for NASA—successfully built a working prototype robotic knight based on Leonardo’s designs. And yes, it worked.

Although Leonardo’s design was never built during his lifetime, in 2000, British skydiver Adrian Nicholas successfully tested a prototype based on the artist’s drawings, proving that Leonardo had indeed designed the world’s first working parachute. Dropped from a hot-air balloon at 10,000 feet, Nicholas floated for a few miles before cutting himself loose at 2,000 feet and opening a modern parachute.

While working in Venice in 1500, Leonardo invented a diving suit designed for sneak attacks on enemy ships. The leather suit included a mask with built-in goggles and breathing tubes. Fast forward to Jacques Cousteau, who built upon Leonardo’s idea to codevelop the first Aqua-Lung in 1942.

Leonardo’s intense interest in the theory of flight led him to design an ornithopter, a machine with flapping wings that looked like a giant bat. It had a wingspan of more than 33 feet and was designed to be attached to a pilot who manipulated the flight.

He also was fascinated with vertical flight, which led him to design a precursor to the helicopter in 1493. Resembling a giant corkscrew and referred to as the “airscrew,” it was attached to a circular platform that required four men to rotate the blades.

For more information:

Timed tickets to the exhibition are required, and advance reservations are strongly encouraged.

Denver Museum of Nature and Science / 2001 Colorado Blvd., Denver / 303.370.6000, dmns.org