From self-driving cars to medical innovations, industries that make Pittsburgh stand out wouldn’t be the same without Leonardo da Vinci.
Known as an artist, da Vinci studied flying, human anatomy and hydraulics. He designed cannons and tanks for war and built what’s known as the first automobile. Plus, he painted the first internationally famous painting.
“He’s the first person we know of that was so prolific at so many things,” said Andrea Maxwell, a Ph.D. candidate in the history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh.
A new traveling exhibit at Carnegie Science Center chronicles just how many things da Vinci studied, includes reproductions of his inventions and art, and offers multiple hands-on activities and displays. It opens Saturday and closes Sept. 2. (Get tickets and more information here.)
Every gallery at the Science Center is connected to da Vinci’s work — from H20h! to the locomotive pulleys in the miniature railroad, said Dennis Bateman, senior director of exhibitions and experience, at a media preview of the two-floor exhibit on Wednesday morning.
To da Vinci, art and science weren’t separate categories, Maxwell said, adding that during his lifetime, he was ignored by many scholars because he didn’t have the same training as they did and didn’t know Latin.
Artists and architects noted his work and preserved it. After his death in 1519, da Vinci left behind 7,000 pages of notes and observations that detailed the work he did and the ideas he had, according to the exhibit.
Now, you can see some of what was in those notes at the new display. Here’s what you must see:
1. Check out his flying machines.
Da Vinci drew 500 sketches of possible flying machines, and they’re some of his most recognized designs.
Many of da Vinci’s designs were just sketches until long after his death, Maxwell said. It would have been too expensive for him to actually build them. Plus, he was always eager to move to the next thing, sometimes leaving sketches trailing off, she said. And some of his designs needed the Industrial Revolution to happen — because they required an engine, added Bateman.
Start the exhibit by seeing what his different flying machines would have looked like IRL. This one was a way for da Vinci to learn more about how birds’ wings worked, Bateman said.
2. Try writing in code.
Da Vinci created a shorthand system of writing and would write that system backward as well. No one knows why he did this, but Bateman said the artist was likely paranoid that his ideas would be stolen. Another theory is that he wanted to hide his work from the church, which frowned on his anatomical studies.
One of many interactive displays, you can try writing backward using chalk and a mirror. (Spoiler alert: I was very bad at it.)
3. View a larger than life ‘The Last Supper.’
Each of the replica artworks are to scale, and the largest one is the “The Last Supper,” which is 15-feet tall and 29-feet wide. Considered the first internationally famous painting, da Vinci painted it on the wall of a convent dining room.
He was one of the first western artists to paint people based on what their reactions were, Maxwell added. In the painting, Jesus just told his closest friends that one of them would betray him. Instead of just sitting there, da Vinci showed how they would have reacted to that news.
“It looks like there should be speech bubbles,” Maxwell said.
4. Marvel at the Mona Lisa.
One of the reasons this painting — which lives at the Louvre in Paris — is so popular is that there is so much mystery around the painting, Maxwell said. Commissioned to be a painting of Lisa Gheradini, hence the name Mona Lisa or Lady Lisa, it’s unclear if it’s actually a painting of her or not, Maxwell said, adding that it could be a man or a woman. And while it looks like a real person, the portrait was created using perfect circles and other elements of geometry.
The Mona Lisa changed the way Americans view art, Maxwell said. In the 1960s, the Kennedys had the painting brought to D.C. so Americans could see it. And because the lines were so long, each person had about 10 seconds to see the painting instead of really studying it. That’s how people look at art today — just a few seconds, she said. But at the Science Center, you can gaze at this replica as long as you’d like.
5. Climb inside an early military tank.
Da Vinci loved to design for the military, and the exhibit includes several of those designs from cannons to bridges built just for battle and an armored tank.
At Carnegie Science Center, you can see an early prototype of the modern tank that could move in all directions with a system of geared wheels.
6. Study anatomy.
Drawn around 1490, the “Vitruvian Man” shows that the height of a perfectly proportioned man is eight times the length of his head and that the height of a man is equal to the length of his outstretched arms.
Da Vinci dissected more than 30 human corpses, which was frowned upon at the time. However, he created renderings of bones, muscles, nerves and more. He even learned that arteries can clog and how heart valves worked, but because his research wasn’t published, it wasn’t until the 1900s that doctors learned da Vinci was right.
At the Science Center, you can see “Vitruvian Man” in its original size — 13.5 inches by 10 inches — as well as a larger version to study the details.
7. Imagine the first car.
Built for plays and stage productions, this spring-loaded cart could move with or without a driver and could travel in a straight or curved line. It also had steering and braking capabilities.
The cart is known as the first automobile, said Tom Zaller, president of Imagine Exhibitions, which brought the display to Pittsburgh.