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Da Vinci sketches come to life

This article first appeared on the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 17, 2011 - Here's an idea for a parlor game: Player one names something mechanical she sees or uses in everyday modern life. Player two tries to trace its origin back to Italian Renaissance man among men, Leonardo Da Vinci.

Smart money would be on player two every time.

Cars and bicycles? Check. The double-hulled boat? Check. The helicopter, hang-glider and robots? Even the monumental U2 stage installed at Busch Stadium a few months ago? All check.

St. Louisans can investigate these and dozens more of Da Vinci's innovations at the mesmerizing "Da Vinci Machines" exhibit now through Dec. 31 at the Bank of America lobby at 800 Market St. downtown.

Though untraditional, the lobby is perfect for the exhibit -- spacious, quiet and easily accessible (despite temporary barricades outside due to the Occupy St. Louis protests.)

The globally touring show contains more than 60 models created from Da Vinci's sketchbooks by a group of craftsmen and Leonardo enthusiasts based in Florence, Italy. Visitors can crank, pull and spin wooden devices built to his specifications. It's a treat that Da Vinci himself did not enjoy, as many, if not most, of his sketches never advanced beyond the drawing stage. The models are made from wood, iron, rope and canvas in an attempt to use materials only available in Da Vinci's day.

For virtually every invention, a modern day usage can be found without having to look very hard. In some cases, the only difference between today's machine and the original design is a modern engine. From functional concepts such as ball bearings, rack-and-pinion gearing and chain drives to his breathtaking series of flying machines, the exhibit allows the visitor to get inside of Da Vinci's genius mind while having a lot of fun.

Explanatory notes and illustrative panels with Da Vinci's drawings accompany each model.

In the first grouping are Da Vinci's war machines designed for the duke of Milan. In his famous letter to the duke, he listed new weaponry, bridging, bombarding machines and trench draining among his many skills.

Visitors can ponder models of complex war machines such as the world's first tank, propelled by two men powering crank shafts. The design featured the first use of what became known as "the Da Vinci Code," according to exhibit manager and curator John Rodgers. To ensure payment and security, Da Vinci apparently purposefully changed one of the gears in the design rendering the machine inoperable without his construction assistance.

Other war machines include a Cluster Bomb that introduced the concept of shrapnel and a bizarre-looking "Scythed chariot." Horse-drawn, the carriage features sharp, swirling blades designed to slash through a dense battle, severing limbs along the way.

How could a vegetarian man of peace have designed these machines of human destruction? Mainly for income, it is thought. Born in 1452 out of wedlock to a notary and a peasant woman, Leonardo did not have the luxury to pursue his art and science without worrying about an income. The need for military engineers at the time provided him with employment and, therefore, the freedom to continue his scientific work.

"He was a man of peace but he also had to pay the bills," said Rodgers.

Other groupings in the exhibit include hydraulics and mechanics.

"Da Vinci tried to use the four forces of power -- horse, wind, water and human -- to their greatest possible potential," said Rodgers. "He was always concerned about the health of the laborer or soldier in his designs."

Thus, the various drills, pulley systems, hydraulic pumps and reversible crank mechanisms he created made it possible for very few people to do the work of dozens before.

The section on flying machines is the most visually stunning. Da Vinci's parachutes, gliders, "air screw" and ornithopter are some of his best known machines. Again, it's astounding that he could design these flights of fancy hundreds of years before anyone was able to deliver on them.

The exhibit's chef d'oeuvre is also the only model that seems to have been made for purely entertainment purposes. It's the Mechanical Lion, built for the pleasure of the king of France, who treated Da Vinci well during his old age. Unlike previous attempts at recreating the lion, this officially sanctioned model uses a three-wheeled car as its base -- a design that previously was thought to be the first example of an automobile. It turns out it was part of a whimsical flower-offering lion-bot.

The top half is under construction and will likely not be ready for the St. Louis exhibit. A cool video demonstrating the lion accompanies the exhibit, though. But as with Da Vinci's unfinished painting Adoration of the Magi, even an unfinished work by Da Vinci can be immensely fascinating and valuable.

Walking through the exhibit can be overwhelming at first, perhaps causing the patron to wonder why he hasn't done more with his own life. But the lasting effect is one of inspiration and wonderment. Upon leaving, you may just be inspired to do as the brochure says and "discover the Da Vinci in You."

Matthew Fernandez is a freelance writer. 

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