In honor of the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, an exhibition at the Peoria Riverfront Museum provides fresh insight into the mind of the unique genius, revealing the progressive artistic and scientific principals he established while giving visitors a chance to get hands-on with full size recreations of his inventions.
“Da Vinci, the Genius,” also featuring “Secrets of Mona Lisa,” is the most comprehensive collection on da Vinci to tour the world. Created by a number of European experts, along with the Museo Leonardo da Vinci in Rome, the exhibition highlights the multifaceted genius of da Vinci and an artist, inventor, anatomist, architect, engineer and more.
Bill Conger, the curator of collections and exhibitions at the Peoria Riverfront Museum, said the extraordinary thing about this exhibition is that there are only a handful of da Vinci artifacts that survive 500 years after his death.
“We don’t have any of those things firsthand. But what we do have are authentic constructions of the inventions that he imagined, many of which were never made. So, some of these creations are the first time some of them have been created.
“He was just such a fantastic character,” Conger explained. “He would get up in the morning and write himself a list of things to do, such a find the color of a woodpecker’s tongue. And he would arrange these details and fulfill them throughout the day, I think really spawning his curiosity and his love of inventiveness by trying to figure out the world. This collision of control and the kind of chaos of the world is really what makes Leonardo. He’s trying to impart order in an orderless world.”
“He was a polymath,” Conger said. “Meaning he was a genius in many different areas. The misconception about Leonardo was that he was just an artist. His scientific thinking, his inventive thinking informs his art. And his art informs the other, as well. That’s what makes him the quintessential Renaissance man.”
Many of the recreations of da Vinci’s inventions are hands on, allowing visitors the opportunity to try out various creations. And before you wonder, no, you cannot try out Leonardo’s parachute or glider.
“There are rotary motion systems and wheel cogs, gears, cranks and turning mechanisms. Simple devices that inform the larger inventions,” Conger explained.
Also on display are recreations of war machines, including a tank. But there’s a catch to these creations.
“People may not know that Leonardo was a lifelong advocate against war and violence, although he actually made a pretty good living inventing war machines. Interestingly enough, he would often include approaches to these mechanisms that wouldn’t actually work. So, he gave them the plans and let them figure it out.”
What Leonardo is likely best known for is his "Mona Lisa," and the exhibition includes a peek behind the paint to learn her secrets, said Conger.
“It’s a very small painting. If anyone has seen this at the Louvre, you’re lucky to get about eight feet away from the Mona Lisa. It’s behind glass and behind a rail. Here, we have an exact color copy of the Mona Lisa, not only from the front, but out of its frame and scanned on all six sides. So, you can explore the Mona Lisa in a way you cannot explore at the Louvre.”
Through infrared technology and spectra color scanning, the layers of the painting are peeled away, revealing the history of the Mona Lisa, detailing how she actually started as another portrait and how Leonardo evolved the work to create what’s become the most famous portrait in the world.
“The painting style here is the culmination of the collision of science and art. What you see is a kind of hazy quality to her. She’s painted in a technique that Leonardo developed called sfumato, which means hazy. And it’s built up layer upon layer upon layer of translucent pigment, so it creates a kind of skin, like the flesh is translucent. I think that’s part of the reason why she’s so endearing to us. She’s a being with the fascinating smile.”
Learning the secrets of the Mona Lisa and Leonardo’s other works can help visitors understand the depth of da Vinci’s genius, added Conger.
“He was trying to make sense of a world that seemed very chaotic. And I really think that that approach defines what we see here. It can really inform the future of invention, innovation and art.”
“De Vinci – The Genius” featuring “Secrets of the Mona Lisa” is currently on view at the Peoria Riverfront Museum through March 22.