Jonathan Pevsner Digs Deep Into Leonardo da Vinci's Inventions, Art

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 27, 2009

When Baltimore's Jonathan Pevsner, the resident scholar on the Discovery Channel series "Doing da Vinci," was just out of graduate school and making about $16,000 per year, he spent $3,000 to buy a museum-quality dream. This was a 1651 edition of "Traitté de la Peinture," one of the first publications of Leonardo da Vinci's transcendental "Treatise on Painting."

Pevsner, a broke-but-devoted da Vinci disciple, was so thrilled to receive the package from the antiquarian bookseller that he slit open the packaging with a razor blade -- and sliced into the ancient cover of the book.

We will pause here so that you may scream.

"The first thing I did," he says now, some 20 years later, "was to forgive myself."

Da Vinci! The Renaissance cortex that conceived the "Mona Lisa" and "The Last Supper"! Ball bearings! Flying machines! Bicycles! Parachutes! Diving bells! Did we mention he performed secret autopsies? That he was a nifty singer? That he wrote backward, in perfect mirror script?

You can get a look at Pevsner, a 47-year-old neuroscientist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and his Leonardo obsession this month during the six-week Discovery Channel series, airing Monday nights at 10. The reality show pairs Pevsner with a team of California-based architects, carpenters, designers and engineers to build a half-dozen of da Vinci's mechanical sketches to see if they actually work. (The man himself seemed to think of everything and finish almost nothing.)

The first week they built Leonardo's circular tank. Sketched out about 1500, it was made of wood and steel and had 30 cannons arrayed in a circle. It worked! It blew holes in everything.

"I discovered it's not easy to get a medieval cannonball through the Los Angeles airport," says Pevsner, laughing.

Pevsner -- tall, thin, friendly, energetic, with a gaze that suggests he's scanning your brain waves -- has been somewhere between fascinated and obsessed with da Vinci for 30 years. The first time he saw a painting by the artist in a museum, he stared at it for six hours. He has since collected more than 700 da Vinci tomes, including books the master read, photo-image replicas of his famous notebooks and copies of texts dating from the 15th century.

"They make me feel closer to Leonardo," he says.

He's re-creating, in his own mind, the world of the master in order to understand the nature of his genius.

"He's in very rare company in the thought he's given to Leonardo as a man, as a mind, as an artist," says Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, where Pevsner has twice lectured. "When you've got somebody that smart, they don't play by the rules of Art 101 or even Art 501. They take something you think you sort of know something about, and turn it on its head."

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