Full Chisel Blog

October 10, 2012

What would Leonardo do?

Filed under: Documentation,Historical Material,Of Interest,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 7:03 pm

A friend and I recently visited a local ‘new’ museum ‘The Leonardo’ in Salt Lake; it is based in the old library building when the Salt Lake City Library moved to its new location.  The web site was not clear about the charges and it ended up costing double of what we thought.  Spent the money and spent a couple hours looking over the exhibits.

I did spend a few minutes touring other parts of the museum and it looks like there is some interesting interactive hands-on stuff.  And what I am about to say in no way reflects on ‘The Leonardo’ museum or its staff in any way, they are doing the job they were handed.

The reproductions of the paintings and drawings were superb; the paintings were life size giving a much needed prospective as to their physical scope.  And the measurements were in both metric and inches, which I appreciate.  The analysis of the Mona Lisa was extensive with wall size enlargements in a variety of lighting conditions gave remarkable detail.  Even a photograph of the back of the Mona Lisa showing a couple of butterfly double dovetail repairs to a split in the original solid poplar panel on which it was painted.  Even a color copy of the newly discovered ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’ painting on parchment, which is lovely [I can’t believe I used that word].

And now  to the traveling exhibition called ‘Da Vinci The Genius, An Inspirational Exhibition’ created by Grande Exhibitions, The Anthropos Foundation, Italy and Pascal Cotte, France.  My first problem was naming an exhibit after a town in Italy, that I can let slide.  The placards placed next to objects were obviously written with a bias ‘a beautiful drawing of a terrible machine’, please don’t interject your personal opinions, just state the facts.  Also one that  particularly caught my attention was the placard describing a hydraulic saw, obviously from the drawing a water wheel operating an up down sawmill; and the object next to it was some sort of hands on mechanism that didn’t work and certainly wasn’t anything resembling the drawing.

Many of the objects had been constructed for a hands-on experience, which is a wonderful idea, however many of them did not work or had missing and broken parts.  I had hoped to get some detail on the screw cutting machine, what I got was disappointing to say the least.  No screw cutter which they called a die, machine couldn’t possibly work.  And this was how it was with several of the devices that were ‘reconstructed’ in wood, metal and other materials.

Then the construction details immediately began to stand out, obvious modern planer marks on the wood, lots of shellac though, everything was slathered in shellac.  Modern Philips head screws, hex head bolts and plumbing pipe for gun barrels.  Lots of plywood, some thin Baltic birch and some A/C Doug fir, must have imported that stuff into Italy from North America.

And where did they come up with the size of how big to build them?  While I can see that they can be of some benefit to actually seeing the object in person, if it were the correct size or scaled in such a manner as you can determine its actual size would be a big help in understanding the man’s obvious genius.

Somebody made a lot of money making those devices; it is too bad they didn’t invest the money into research and actually building them correctly.  I mentioned it to a fellow who work there and after a bit of hesitation he said that they were mock-ups.  I came up with another ups, kept it to myself and said they were actually mockeries.

The accompanying pamphlet was not terribly informative, lots of fluff plenty of white space for notes and drawings, I saw no one taking notes and advertising took up half of the ‘program’.  The audio guide was an additional charge, which we declined, we had our own verbal conversations, many disparaging remarks.

All part of what I call ‘sport museuming’, I did complain as best I could, not wanting to offend the staff as they had nothing to do with the poorly thought out and ineptly constructed models of Leonardo’s sketches.  Most people, wait nearly all people who view this exhibit will not know the difference, but I and my friend obviously do know the difference and I know many others that would also be disappointed as to how modern people interpret the past.

How difficult can it be, just use 500 year old tools, materials, and techniques?  Nothing to it.  Could I do a better job, well hell yes.  Look, if you are going to do history, you better get it ‘exactly right’ or don’t bother at all.




  1. I feel your pain, Stephen…someone did not take the time to find a real craftsman, or more likely the marketing arm refused to pay for real craftsmanship.

    Comment by Hedge — October 10, 2012 @ 11:34 pm

  2. Such a shame!!! It’s not any solace Stephen, but the condition is pervasive. I have visited a couple of other Leonardo exhibits in the past decade and the “working examples” are ALL mockeries. Foremost among these is an exhibit that keeps moving from church to church, ehrm museum to museum, in Venice. Shabby, poorly made, couldn’t possibly have worked when new. Someone is making a killing supplying naive curators with shoddy Leonardo goods.

    On the other hand, I had the great pleasure of seeing superbly made scale replicas of many of Leonardo’s machines almost every day at lunch. The cafeteria’s dining area at IBM’s Research headquarters near Yorktown NY is decorated with two large exhibit cases housing a very fine collection of Leonardo’s machines. While I’m certain they were not made with 500 year old tools, they are superbly crafted and show no modern fasteners or attachments. They were crafted by a first rate engineer from Milan, Roberto Guatelli. The collection was part of a traveling exhibit in 1951-92, and then returned to the benefactor where people can still enjoy them daily. Being in display cases, they are not “hands-on,” but appear to be actually operable.

    So, it is indeed sad to see and hear of the man’s genius illustrated with modern schlock.

    Comment by Bob Easton — October 11, 2012 @ 6:08 am

  3. You probably got the main motivation in the first paragraph –”The web site was not clear about the charges and it ended up costing double of what we thought.”

    Comment by Ken Pollard — October 11, 2012 @ 8:01 am

  4. My partner works in this business. Builds cases for museums, makes objects for display etc. The industry is generally “cash strapped” meaning that say a 100k investment for a nice reproduction of one of the machines ( numbers all speculative)is given to the lowest bidder for whom, because much of the investment is consumed by designers, “idea people” etc. authenticity is not high on the list of objectives. And when the contractor staff is eating most of the budget the company winning the bid is primarily concerned with turning out something quick, cheap, and survivable for only as long as it takes to secure whatever modest fee they bid. If authenticity had been a priority the people contracting the work would specify such. Problem is the folks designing these exhibits are “creative types” who couldn’t build a shed let alone do the research into period work. One of my partners major frustrations is the impracticality of many of the designs they have to bid, especially for museums, no engineering, actually dangerous proposals that could potentially harm visitors etc. And again a lot of money gets sucked up by the same “designers.” In other words a lot of waste before they even get down to making anything, labor as usual gets the shaft.

    Comment by john — October 11, 2012 @ 8:58 am

  5. This is a travelling exhibit from France. And, how else would one pay for such things to be at a local museum other than be sponsered by local businesses? It’s nice to have a new museum in town instead of the library being made into yet another office building.

    Comment by Judy Jackson — October 11, 2012 @ 11:27 am

  6. I designed and built some supplemental Da Vinci machines for an major U.S. museum that was hosting this exhibition. We built some functional visitor-operated catapults/trebuchets (sp), portable bridge, and some other things. One thing we realized when we looked closely at the Da Vinci drawing is that many of his designs could never be built; i.e. bows for catapults assumed that wood is much more flexible than it is (especially when scaled up), the stress of operation would tear machines apart, etc.

    We reached a conclusion that the sketches were just that: beautiful sketches of cool ideas, and that many curators and exhibit designers, having no idea of how to actually build a mechanical object that actually works, took the drawings as a sort of gospel of genus and conspiracy of technological suppression. Leonardo was a genus, as his polymathic body of work attests, however not every idea was practical, and we assumed that he was smart enough to know that (otherwise they would have been built!). If he had carbon fibre, however……

    We did make fun of the core exhibit models, however we did give them the benefit of doubt regarding deadlines, budget, etc.

    Comment by Erik Newman — October 14, 2012 @ 8:58 am

  7. Erik, I agree with you 100%, my partner has often been confounded by unrealistic expectations. The easiest example being making a turntable for a 2 ton truck, no sweat, then the design team loads the truck with 3 times the weight of said truck, destroying the platform, mechanics moving the turntable etc. And the designers cry foul. No matter that they specified 2 tons not 6 or 8, why doesn’t it work? And these things are engineered. This may be the wrong place to descry lack of foresight but if the displays work then complaining about the type of screw used ignores, as you say, the unworkability of the sketch in the first place.

    Comment by john — October 14, 2012 @ 7:01 pm

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