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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Review: Leonardo Exhibit at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose

After reading about the Tech’s new exhibit, Leonardo 500 Years Into the Future, I was excited to check it out. After all, the exhibit is based on the guy who painted the Mona Lisa. And the Last Supper. Making its only U.S. appearance, the exhibit stays on until January 4, 2009.

Let me start off by saying that this is NOT a kid-friendly exhibit. My kids were dying of boredom. I hate to say that given that I love the Tech, but it’s true.

The exhibit is divided into two sections:

The first focuses on a series of Italian artists/engineers from the first half of the 15th century. These were Leonardo’s role models. This is to show that the brilliance of Leonardo, with his inventions, drawings of machines and well known paintings, was not an isolated phenomenon. This first exhibit showed some of the inventions from the time, including a model of a Florence cathedral dome designed by Brunelleschi, and lots of machines powered by water or other manpower. These included models of a column lifter, mud extractor, paddle boat, pile driver and hydraulic saw mill.

If you’re an engineer, or your kid’s name is Jared (I’m referring to a specific Jared here), you’d love this part. If your name is Kaplan, you might be a little bored, even if you really do appreciate the genius of these machines. And you know that if you lived in the 15th century, you’d never figure these out yourself.

Many of the large models had small metal models encased in a plastic box that you could crank yourself. This was the part Zachary liked, even though not much happened when you turned the crank.

As for the Leonardo portion, there were three highlights. The exhibit had a display of his notebooks. Actual notebooks he wrote in, with the pages open for viewing. That was pretty cool (for the adults). We couldn’t read his writing (he did write backwards in a “mirror” reflection after all), and I don’t read Italian either. Two strikes. But the drawings were so precise and beautiful – even the machines and parts.

The second highlight was the Sforza horse and movie about how it was made. The horse is exhibited outside the museum – you don’t need to pay to see it. It’s enormous – something like 24 feet high and cast in bronze (or rather, supposed to be cast in bronze – this one is fiberglass and steel). Leonardo designed it and made a clay mold, but never actually cast it. Sforza is the last name of the person who commissioned the horse, larger than anything of its kind in those days. The 70 tons of bronze designated for the sculpture was instead used for cannons during a France/Italy war in 1494. The project was abandoned in 1499.

The movie showed how the sculpture was to be cast, using Leonardo’s original plans. Lots of contraptions to hoist, transport and lower the cast into the ground, and more contraptions with the smelting system, including a pyrotechnic sensor to regulate the flow of molten bronze into the channels.

My third favorite part was the movie on the Vitruvian Man. You’ve seen this drawing before – a circle with a naked man standing spread eagle. My kids didn’t even point out his private part. I was impressed. The movie goes through the geometric and mathematical patterns of the body, circle and square. Ten of his hands make of the man’s height. Seven of his feet equal his height, as do eight heads. The ear is 1/3 the size of the face. It goes on, showing various mathematical properties between heights, circumferences etc. Math isn’t my strong suit, especially when my children are hanging on my legs begging to leave, but I still appreciated Leonardo’s calculations.

On the way out of the exhibit it actually got a little more interactive, but by this time we just had to leave. There was one perspective part, showing a man, painted half on a flat, segmented surface, half on a curved surface. At a certain angle, looking through a peephole, it was lined up. Pretty cool.

I’m embarrassed to say this, but I wondered why they kept referring to the artist as Leonardo throughout the exhibit, instead of by his last name, da Vinci. Well, it turns out he really has only one name – like Madonna. Only he comes from (from is “da” – or rather “duh!”) Vinci, a Tuscan town I’ve not heard of in spite of visiting Italy twice. Ah, well I’ve never been to Tuscany. Perhaps some publicist will read this, take pity and send my family there to see it.

Downstairs in the main Tech museum, there were a handful of hands-on Leonardo exhibits for the kids. I talk about the mirror writing one and the perspective drawing in this blog post.

But there are more we didn’t see, including:
--Leonardo's White Water Adventure (devise a lifesaving device to keep the Leonardo action figure afloat)
--What Would Leonardo Do? (devise and transport a box of parts to a stranded helicopter)
--Leonardo's Parachute (sketch and build your own)
--The Da Vinci Dilemma: Moving the Master (a play)

So we’ll head back to the Tech to check those out in the near future.

What: Leonardo 500 Year into the Future
Where: the Tech Museum of Innovation, San Jose
When: now until January 4, 2009
Tickets: timed tickets area available online or via phone (service fee charged) or onsite at the admission counter (we had no problems getting tickets on a Saturday afternoon at 1:00, timed for when we got there)
Cost: $25/adult, $15/kid (museum members get a discount) – includes admission to the Tech as well

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