Da Vinci notebook lands at National Air and Space Museum


The “Codex on the Flight of Birds” will be on view at the National Air and Space Museum from Sept. 13 until Oct. 22. The notebook, which was written from right to left, describes the use of flight testing apparatus to understand aerodynamics. (Smithsonian Institution Libraries )
August 8, 2013

As part of the Year of Italian Culture in the United States, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Codex on the Flight of Birds” will make its second appearance on American soil at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. The notebook, on loan from the Biblioteca Reale in Turin, Italy, dates back to approximately 1505 and contains da Vinci’s schemes, scribblings and sketches about bird flight and — though he was about 400 years early to the party — the possibility of mechanical aviation.

“Leonardo da Vinci materials very rarely travel, even within Europe,” said Peter Jakab, chief curator at the Air and Space Museum. “To have a da Vinci item come to the United States for a public exhibit is extraordinary.”

The codex will be digitized so visitors can flip through each of the 18 folios on monitors. It’s one of da Vinci’s only notebooks dedicated to a single subject. In it, he explored “issues about aerodynamics, the importance of lightweight structures [in flight], the position of the pilot and how he would need to fly the airplane,” Jakab said. “He even hints at the force that Newton would later define as gravity.”

Da Vinci died more than 300 years before Orville and Wilbur Wright were born, yet as a nod to “the foreshadowing quality” of da Vinci’s work, this codex will be on display in the same exhibition space as “The Wright Brothers & The Invention of the Aerial Age,” whose main attraction is the Wrights’ 1903 Flyer: the first successful powered aircraft on the face of the Earth.

“When you look at what the Wright Brothers did,” Jakab said, “you see these concepts that da Vinci had identified in rudimentary form appearing in the work of the people who actually created the airplane in the 20th century.”

Da Vinci “lived a 15th century life, but he really saw the modern world in his mind’s eye. And many of the things that he did were not only without peer in his own time, but were so prescient for the distant future.”

The codex will be on display Sept. 13 through Oct. 22.

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