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Leonardo exhibit showcases remarkable Renaissance man

There is only one problem with the excellent Leonardo da Vinci exhibit at the Buffalo Museum of Science: the timing is off. The exhibit will run mostly during school vacation. If it is not already too late, all science teachers should urge their students to visit this exhibit.

Students, and the rest of us, too, can see in that exhibit those basic engineering principles that Leonardo so beautifully sketched in his famous notebooks now fully realized in mostly working replicas.

The museum's Amy Biber and project representative Reagan Johns gave me a private tour of the exhibit while it was still being set up and I found myself charmed by the childish fun of cranking levers and pulleys to raise heavy weights. But I also found the exhibit intellectually stimulating. In particular, I saw interesting connections between Leonardo and that other polymath, Archimedes.

Archimedes employed the principal of the screw to raise water in a tube for irrigation. Leonardo transferred that principal to other purposes. The most interesting to me is his airplane model that is designed to rotate its screw-shaped surface in order to drill into the sky. Indeed, it doesn't provide a practical airship, but the principle applies in reverse with those maple seed samaras that slow their fall through that same twisting motion.

Of course, Leonardo also went that illusory route of giving a man flapping wings to emulate birds and bats. This model hovers over the atrium of the museum. But he went in another direction as well, and here you find his fixed-wing model which, appropriately adapted, would indeed sail efficiently.

What is so very clear from this exhibit is the realization that Leonardo da Vinci is in every way a modern man. We have his famous letter to the warrior Duke of Milan telling how he could construct portable bridges, pontoons, scaling ladders, lightweight cannons, catapults, mangonels and trabocchi. He could dig underground tunnels. He could demolish fortresses and construct public buildings. And he could "further execute sculpture in marble, bronze or clay, also in painting I can do as much as anyone else, whoever he may be."

Sounds a bit like a contemporary Enron executive speaking, doesn't it? What is so amazing is the fact that, unlike our modern boasting fakers, this remarkable Renaissance man could really do all of those things 500 years ago.

But there is another unfortunately modern aspect of Leonardo. He has a record of failure to complete many of his major projects. Leonardo's famous bronze equestrian statue was never realized: although the clay model was displayed, the bronze was turned to use as cannonballs.

He abandoned his first painting, "The Adoration of the Magi," and few of those grand designs of his letter and many of his other artistic projects were ever realized. Even his finished projects, the "Mona Lisa" among them, were completed only after years of harassment by those to whom they were promised.

All that is true, but Leonardo was never inactive, suffering the kind of writer's block that completely enervates people like me. Quite the contrary, his mind was always active and we have his remarkable notebooks to prove this. Page after page illustrate a creative mind at work: ideas leap out at you. It is a few of those very ideas that this exhibit realizes in carefully constructed and often working models.

It is in those notebooks that he explores perspective, bringing to an essentially mathematical concept an artist's eye. Yes, Leonardo would be comfortable in any modern university or scientific research institute, but he would also do well in Hollywood, because those perspective ideas address today's film and television problems of representing three dimensions.

Those ideas about perspective take up only a few of more than a thousand pages. Among the rest are the earliest studies of anatomy and sketches like the famous Vitruvian Man, arms outstretched, all contained in a circle.

The museum exhibit displays only about 1 percent of Leonardo's achievements. That's plenty for at least one visit.

e-mail: insrisg@buffalo.edu