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Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2001

Flights of fancy

Like a captivated child watching a magician's tricks, we demand to know "how?" How, that is, did a surge of Italian creativeness 600 years ago seemingly lay the foundations of the modern world?

A model based on Leonardo da Vinci's flying machine, from the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence

Our curiosity about the Renaissance is almost insatiable, as museum curators and exhibition organizers are well aware. So it is timely that two of the best recent exhibits covering this great revival of art, literature and learning in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries have made their way to Tokyo in time for the summer holidays.

At Odaiba's newly opened National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, visitors can enjoy "Leonardo da Vinci and the Innovative Engineers of the Renaissance," while the National Science Museum in Ueno is hosting "Science and Technology in Italy from the Renaissance to the 21st Century."

Da Vinci's detailed sketches of the brain and its relation to vision (top); and an enlarging device (above) incorporating a series of pulleys

One explanation of the Renaissance in Italy -- an explanation no longer fashionable in academic circles but one that retains wide popular appeal -- is the "genius theory." This attributes the advances of the period to the fortuitous appearance of "great men" such as Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and others. In devoting almost half its display space to da Vinci, the Odaiba exhibition appears to endorse this idea of a genius-driven phenomenon.

Originally curated by Paulo Galluzzi, head of Florence's Institute and Museum of the History of Science, this exhibition has already stopped off in Paris, New York and London. In each city, its displays, which include many large wooden models constructed from plans drafted in Renaissance manuscripts, including da Vinci's notebooks, have drawn the public in droves.

Unfortunately for those who believe genius to be an emanation stored in and emitted by objects touched by inspired hands, the original manuscripts that were on show at some of the earlier locations are not on display here. Instead, pages are presented in enlarged reproduction.

There are, however, some original objects, such as a bronze table fountain designed to pour water or wine. And, of course, the main attraction of the exhibition is its large number of modern reconstructions that bring life to such possibly unimagined Renaissance developments as worm screws, toothed wheels, crankshafts, ratchets, hoists, pulleys, cams, antifriction bearings, automatic hooks, leaf-spring clock drives and other mechanisms.

Diagram for an aquatic pegging machine (top), by Francesco di Giorgio; model of a rotating crane (above), conceived by Brunelleschi, executed by da Vinci and later used to construct the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore

Around half of these are built from the sketches of da Vinci, though the originality of some remains an open question. For instance, a large revolving crane conceived by Brunelleschi then executed by da Vinci. The mechanism was later used in the construction of the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore's dome in Florence.

Beside works of such Renaissance stars as da Vinci and Brunelleschi, though, the exhibition reveals the talents of many others who contributed to the stockpile of Renaissance ingenuity. One was Francesco di Giorgio (1439-1502), whose impressive column-lifting machine used in the architectural projects of Popes Nicholas V and Paul II is reconstructed here. The Sienese artist and engineer Taccola (ca. 1382-1458) designed practical devices to help soldiers cross rivers, while one of his illustrations also shows a close approximation to the modern snorkel.

What perhaps set da Vinci apart from other engineers was his realization that machines were not indivisible wholes, but an assemblage of distinct parts. He clearly saw that a finite number of basic mechanisms would, in various combinations, be able to compose an infinite variety of machines. By isolating the components of machines in this way, he was mirroring his studies of the human body, whose organs he regarded as highly sophisticated mechanical devices.

A diagram of Filippo Brunelleschi's cupola for the Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy

Da Vinci has come to epitomize the image of "Renaissance Man," proficient in a wide range of fields. He applied his abilities to mechanics, engineering and anatomy, as well as to architecture, astronomy and painting.

Thomas Edison famously said that genius was 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration -- a remark reflecting the "businessman-inventor" approach that steered him toward profitable, working inventions. Da Vinci's genius, on the other hand, is the reverse. Driven by the whims of his inspiration, he was constantly embarking on fresh enterprises while leaving countless others unfinished. Beside unfinished projects, da Vinci produced many designs that were simply unfeasible. Models displayed in Tokyo testify not only to the brilliance, but also to the eccentricity of the inventing process.

Portrait of Italian mathematician/ physicist Evangelista Torricelli, part of the exhibition "Science and Technology in Italy from the Renaissance to the 21st Century"

Da Vinci may have been credited with conceptualizing the helicopter, the submarine and the tank, but "conceptualization" is not the same as "invention." Like the aesthetically impressive flying machine, few of his designs would have actually worked. Di Giorgio's aquatic pegging machine, powered by a solitary runner on a treadmill, is another example of the Renaissance overestimation of the physical capacity of man.

Capturing the initial creative moment, when such fantastical designs -- workable or not -- were born, is the ambitious goal of the exhibition of Italian design at the National Science Museum.

Conceived by a group of Italian academics, including three Nobel prizewinners, this is divided into displays of miscellaneous items linked thematically. Various paintings, models, machines, pieces of scientific equipment, maps, documents and other objects from different eras are mixed together into stimulating tableaux. Six of the sections are named after the senses, the usual five and the mysterious sixth sense, while other sections are titled "Energy," "Material," "The Body" and "The Cosmos."

The "Smell" display, for example, throws together an oil painting of a Japanese traveler from 1615 with an exquisite antique model of a Venetian palace and a modern electronic sniffing device. "Hearing" includes "Apollo and the Muses," an oil by Lazzaro Baldi (1624-1703), as well as a disassembled violin and a bust of the Italian composer Verdi. The theme extends from language and music to communication in general, with a 19th-century metal typeface included alongside examples of old Olivetti typewriters and an 1855 prototype "pantelegraph" -- an early approximation to the fax machine.

Although intelligible themes do emerge from these miscellaneous objects, they also bring to mind such Surrealist artists as Dali and de Chirico, whose works threw objects together in an attempt to mimic the workings of the human subconscious and its propensity to collect apparently random impressions and ideas.

"Doors of Mystery," a 17th-century painting by Domenico Remps found elsewhere in the exhibition, anticipates the works of these later painters by showing a glass cabinet filled with various devices, miniature paintings and specimens from the natural world.

Despite centuries of scientific advance, nobody can satisfactorily explain how creativity, inventiveness and even genius arise in the human mind. But the phenomenon no doubt involves a willingness to cross the borders that specialization draws between areas of knowledge as well as an ability to make analogies between different things.

At its simplest, this is expressed by the trick paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldi and Filippo Balbi. The first of these shows a bowl of vegetables that, turned upside down, reveals a human face, while another shows an anatomical human head intricately composed of small intertwined human bodies.

In the Renaissance, it was natural for active minds to switch between different fields of knowledge and to draw inspiration from each. For them, there was no clear dividing line between the mathematics of the engineer and the poetry of the artist. So it was that da Vinci, seeing birds through the eyes of an artist, used his anatomical understanding to design his bizarre but beautiful flying machine.

Using a similar mixture of logic and poetry to look at the tableaux enables us to get the most out of them. For example, the centerpiece of "The Sixth Sense" is a work by Angiolo Tricca, a 19th-century painter, depicting the artist Piero della Francesca (ca. 1420-92) and the mathematician Luca Pacioli (ca. 1445-1514), apparently discussing perspective.

The painting establishes an interesting motif of creative opposites that is reinforced by Sebastiano Ricci's baroque "Hercules Between Vice and Virtue," displayed to its left. Meanwhile, the right side of the tableau is dominated by two large globes, one depicting the Earth and the other the heavens. These in turn are linked to a line of geometric solids that progress from near-spherical to increasingly jagged, leading the viewer's eye back to the applied geometry of the central painting. Here we have opposites, even conflict, but an overall harmony that is very rewarding.

The best part of these tableaux is that it is the viewer himself who must follow the sequence of connections to reach their electrifying unity. By demanding more, by confusing the viewer while simultaneously offering him or her the materials to construct their own meanings, this exhibition pays a fitting tribute to the Renaissance by arriving at the true roots of creative thinking.

"Leonardo da Vinci and the Innovative Engineers of the Renaissance," till Sept. 2 at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, (03) 3570-9154, a 5-minute walk from Funenokagakukan Station on the Yurikamome Line. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m (Friday and Saturday until 7 p.m.). 1,300 yen, students 600 yen. "Science and Technology in Italy from the Renaissance to the 21st Century," till Sept. 2 at the National Science Museum, (03) 3272-8600, near Ueno Station. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. 1,300 yen, students 600 yen.

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