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WEST BRANCH — Leonardo da Vinci’s genius has been framed by the “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper.” But he was a Renaissance man in the truest sense of the term.
A person of brilliant vision and imagination — an engineer, scientist, sculptor and inventor, as well as one of the most celebrated artists of all time — he was born out of wedlock to a notary and a poor farmer’s daughter on April 15, 1452, in Vinci, near Florence, Italy. Since he wasn’t allowed to use his father’s last name, da Vinci reflects the place of his birth.
From that humble beginning grew a curious mind that knew no boundaries.
His legacy also flew past the boundaries of his death in France on May 2, 1519, at age 67. Visitors still vie for the chance to glimpse his enigmatic “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
But it’s his lifetime obsession with flight, water, robotics and mechanics that’s on display, extended through Jan. 29 at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch.
"Leonardo da Vinci: Machines in Motion” is a stunning celebration of da Vinci’s vast interests and contributions to technology light-years ahead of his time.
What: “Leonardo da Vinci: Machines in Motion”
Where: Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, 302 Parkside Dr., West Branch
When: Extended to Jan. 29; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; closed Dec. 25 and Jan. 1
Admission: Timed ticketing required, with visitors limited to 25 per hour; last admission is 4 p.m.; masks required
Cost: $10 ages 16 to 61; $5 ages 62 and over, college students, active or retired military; $3 ages 6 to 15; free ages 5 and under; buy.acmeticketing.com/events/269/list or in the lobby
While the eye naturally is drawn to more than 20 actual-size working machines in the exhibit, the banners, placards and a nearly 12-minute History Channel video on his life and times offer a deeper glimpse into the many layers of his life.
So do not plan to just zip through the exhibit and crank the handles on several of the machines. This collection offers a treasure trove of information that will capture the fancy of all ages.
Guests are required to wear masks, and hand sanitizer is available — especially for those who wish to put some muscle behind the mechanics. Several seniors from Charles City and Floyd were cranking the handles with glee on a visit last week — and I gave several machines a whirl, as well.
The machines on display aren’t the originals dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. Instead, they are life-size, working models created by scientists and artisans, using da Vinci’s designs and the tools and materials of his day, including wood, rope and glue.
It’s a traveling exhibition that’s been viewed in Athens and Istanbul, and was curated by Emmanouil Koutsourelis.
The exhibit focuses on four aspects of da Vinci’s interests: earth, water, air and fire. All of the equipment is fascinating, from various flying machines to foot floats for walking on water. A hydraulic water saw also is intriguing, and as a journalist, I was drawn to the printing press.
But my favorite is the robot, dubbed “Armor-clad C-3PO.” It looks like a suit of armor you’d see in a medieval museum or movie, but stand in front of it, and it moves, revealing a chest full of gears.
The accompanying signage says: “This machine represents what may be the first design for a humanoid robot. Leonardo designed it to open and close its jaw (which was anatomically correct), sit up, wave its arms, and move its head. Automated drums have accompanied the movement. We don’t know how Leonardo planned to power his robot, but it was most likely by water or weights.”
Other delights abound, before you even enter da Vinci’s realm.
One of his greatest obsessions was flight, and even though his designs didn’t work, the closest he may have come is represented by his precursor to the hang glider, which appropriately is hanging over the lobby leading into the gallery.
Stepping into the exhibit, I immediately zeroed in on his other human-powered flying machines on display. From a life-size contraption that looks like a whirligig to another that looks like a giant wing, da Vinci captured more than mere flights of fancy as he studied the movement of birds through various wind currents.
His words on the Air banner declare: “When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
In the Earth section, look for a crane, printing press and olive oil press. In Water, see machines that rely on the force or energy of water, as well as the water walkers and a webbed glove that acts like a flipper to speed up swimming. In Fire, you’ll see designs for machine warfare, including a cannon and machine gun.
All of his mechanics tie into the world around him, and on the History Channel video on da Vinci’s artistic and design development, you’ll hear his philosophy that “nature is the ultimate machine.”
You’ll also learn that he kept journals about “life, work, people, and events — and drawings of all kind,” amassing 15,000 pages in his notebooks. However, instead of just writing from left to right, he also used code, writing from right to left and backward, as if looking into a mirror. Of that volume, some 6,000 pages still exist, giving us glimpses into the workings of his beautiful mind.
“It’s a great exhibit for everyone to enjoy, and a perfect place to bring your out-of-town guests who are looking for something different to see and do,” said Jerry Fleagle, president and CEO of the Hoover Presidential Foundation.
While you’re at the museum, you owe it yourself to explore the massive permanent galleries, tracing Herbert Hoover’s life from his birth in West Branch to his ascension to the presidency, and beyond. His wife, Lou Henry Hoover, also is well represented in her own displays.
Then hop downtown to see West Branch decked in holiday style all around Main Street and the Heritage Square in its midst.
Visitors also can stroll through the Festival of Trees inside the Hoover Presidential Foundation site, 127 W. Main St., through Dec. 30 (closed Dec. 24 and 25). Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, and admission is free.
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