Arts & Culture

A different look at Da Vinci: Dubuque exhibit shows more hidden facets of Renaissance man

The display at the entrance to the Da Vinci: The Exhibition at the Mississippi River Museum in Dubuque, Iowa, on Wednesday, May 23, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
The display at the entrance to the Da Vinci: The Exhibition at the Mississippi River Museum in Dubuque, Iowa, on Wednesday, May 23, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

DUBUQUE — Da Vinci: The Artist. Da Vinci: The Inventor. Da Vinci: The Warrior. Da Vinci: The Anatomist. Da Vinci: The Architect. Da Vinci: The Chef.

Take your pick of titles.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the quintessential Renaissance man. For proof, head to the Mississippi River Museum by Oct. 8 to see “Da Vinci: The Exhibition.” You’ll be amazed at how little you know about this genius whose life bridged the 15th and 16th centuries.

Of course, he gave us the enigmatic “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper.” But he also gave us the precursor to the helicopter, the military tank, the submarine, the SCUBA suit, the adding machine and if you saw “Ever After,” the Cinderella movie starring Drew Barrymore, you saw him walking on water in what looks like foot boats. The Dubuque display includes replicas of the water-skis he designed, which he later deemed better suited for snow.

All of his inventions in the museum’s second-floor galleries are replicas, built or created to precise detail from his sketches.

“Da Vinci did not actually build any of his inventions during his lifetime. He simply drew them,” said Wendy Scardino, director of marketing and communications for the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium. “These models were built directly from his drawings and to the specifications that would have been used in his day, which makes them very unique and old-fashioned, so to speak. The genius is there; the concepts are there.”


Hosting the traveling exhibition is a fine fit for the museum, Scardino said.

“When we learned about it and did a little bit more digging, we started to notice da Vinci had a connection to the water. A lot of his inventions related to water,” she said. “He obviously was a scientist, which pairs well. We consider ourselves part museum, part aquarium, part science center.”


The practical application of some of his designs are visible in other areas of the Port of Dubuque museum complex, including his improvement on the Archimedes screw used on the dredge boat docked in the harbor, she noted.

“This man was light-years ahead of his time, but we really chose the exhibit based on the connection to water and the fact that he was a true scientist (who) explored nature.”

Reaction to the exhibition, which opened May 12, has been “wonderful,” she said, noting that all ages have come through, including lots of school groups.

“You will have the retiree crowd who will spend two hours here reading everything, and then you will have the family with the 5-year-old and the 8-year-old, and they will be in the space playing with all of the different inventions, doing some of the activities that we have. That’s been really exciting to see,” Scardino said.

This massive display of art and artifacts builds on the traditions established when the museum hosted traveling exhibits on the Titanic in 2015, giant animatronic dinosaurs in 2016 and monster fish in 2017.


Allow yourself a couple of hours to do it up right. After you’ve posed for a portrait in formal Renaissance garb, squelch your urge to zoom right to the inventions. Instead, take some time to read the panels that greet you upon entering the 6,000-square-foot exhibit space. You will learn about the Renaissance, its immediate and lasting influences, as well as details about da Vinci’s birth and early years in Italy.

Here are some tidbits gleaned from the panels: da Vinci wasn’t his real last name — it indicates that he was born in the Tuscan village of Vinci. And even though his parents weren’t married — his father was a wealthy legal notary and his mother was a peasant — his father claimed him as his legitimate son, raised him on his large estate, and sent him to school. In the mid-1460s, the teenager went to Florence to apprentice with famed painter and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio. There, the young scholar learned to weld, paint and sculpt.


Turn the corner and prepare to be amazed by all the gadgets and gizmos — small to gigantic — that were built from da Vinci’s schematics.

Some placards say “do not touch.” Other say “please touch.” In other rooms, some features, like a military tank and the mirror room, are big enough to crawl inside.

Ryder Stach, 11, of Yankton, S.D., who was visiting cousins in Dubuque, ventured to the museum on a recent afternoon. He was having a grand time turning cranks, operating pulleys and exploring gadgetry in rooms showing da Vinci’s fascination with flight, weights and measures, weather, leverage, gears, hydraulics, transportation, physics and robotics.

“They’re pretty cool inventions,” Stach said, adding that he was most surprised by the wooden bicycle and the flying machine. Also in the transportation category are a horseless wagon — a human-powered differential gear cart that would allow the driver to navigate bends in the road — and a paddleboat operated by human pedal-power.

A scale model of his “ideal city” shows da Vinci’s fascination with civil engineering and planning. In the wake of the plague of 1484, he envisioned a city with a canal system for commercial purposes and sewage removal, allowing waste to flow to the sea, away from human contact. Multistory buildings would reduce the housing footprint, with tradesmen and travelers on the lower levels and “gentlemen” on the upper floors. Streets would be built at right angles for ease of navigation.


His parabolic bridge combined his work with water and military — a movable structure that could be set up and taken down quickly to escape attackers. His double-hulled boat, especially useful in wartime, was designed to protect humans and cargo from collisions with rocks or other boats, by absorbing the damage in the outer layer. If you did find yourself in the water, he also designed a life-preserver that looks much like modern ones, except his was an air-filled leather bag that encircled the unfortunate person trying to stay afloat.

He also dived below the surface, designing a one-person vessel that could strike an enemy from below the surface — in essence, a sneak-attack submarine. For exploration without a sub, he devised an underwater breathing apparatus and diving suit.

His horse-drawn scythed wagon, which looks like an elaborate contraption for farmers, actually was intended to clear debris and creatures in its path during wartime pursuits. A similar scythed chariot also was intended as a lethal weapon.

His fan-type gun, which could shoot eight projectiles at once, looked better on paper, however, since it would be very hard to reload in battle.


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A conical-shaped armored tank beckons visitors of all ages to climb inside. With geared wheels, it could move in any direction, and had weapons protruding all around the base. Its shape mirrors the space capsules that splash down in the ocean with astronauts aboard.

And speaking of mirrors, be sure to step inside the Room of Mirrors that would allow da Vinci to examine the human body from any angle, as well as explore the mysteries of reflection.

Back on the battlefield, you can see his designs for a three-tier gun, a steam cannon and an improved catapult.


Another room is devoted to his meticulous drawings of the human form, including details of musculature, internal organs, the skull, bone structure and even reproductive organs with a fetus curled inside a womb. This study aided his portraiture and artistic depictions in realistic details.

The largest panel in this room shows his “Vitruvian Man,” a pen and ink drawing of a nude male superimposed in two positions with arms outstretched and feet together and apart, showing proportions in a way that blends mathematics and artistry.

An earlier nook is devoted to his musical pursuits and instrumentation, including a double flute and portable piano.

But art lovers will be enamored of the final rooms that display replicas of some of his most famous works, including a life-size reproduction of “The Last Supper.” Measuring 15 feet by 30 feet, this massive work was painted on the wall of a convent in Milan, Italy, in the 1490s. Even as a reproduction, the exhibit piece is breathtaking in scope and grandeur. Around the corner hangs a reproduction of “Mona Lisa,” smiling slyly at passers-by.

They, in turn, will leave smiling.

If you go:

  • What: “Da Vinci: The Exhibition”
  • Where: Paddlewheel entrance, National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, 350 E. Third St., Dubuque
  • When: To Oct. 8; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Labor Day, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through October (hours vary year-round)
  • Admission: All-access: $26.95 adults, $21.95 ages 3 to 17, $24.95 ages 65 and over; with other admission packages, add da Vinci exhibition for $5
  • Da Vinci Days: Makers Faire, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 9, hands-on activities in blacksmithing, crafts, wood turning and more; Flow, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 30, focus on da Vinci’s fascination with water; Fly, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. July 14, principles of flight and aerodynamics, paper airplane competition, helicopter on-site, civilian airmen and Dubuque Flight School representatives; Decode, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Aug. 11, focus on the backward writing da Vinci used to conceal his work; Launch, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 8, test rockets, catapults and more; Create, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 29, art activities
  • Details:

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