Age 8+

'Da Vinci: The Genius' at the Md. Science Center

Friday, November 27, 2009

Imagine an exhibition where you can ponder what Mona Lisa was thinking as she sat for Leonardo da Vinci while your kid can figure out why she doesn't have eyebrows.

Or one where you can revel in the fact that Michelangelo and Leonardo were contemporaries, and your child can delight in the discovery that they were as bitter rivals as any two boys on a playground.

After all, masterpieces are such because they work on a variety of levels. So what if you think the most amazing thing in the traveling exhibit "Da Vinci: The Genius" at the Maryland Science Center is that he revolutionized the use of oils in painting and your kids are amazed that he wrote backward?

The beauty of this exhibit is that there's something for just about every level, as long as you can read or are willing to be read to. (It's probably best for ages 8 and older and definitely not for preschoolers.)

The traveling show is a celebration of the entirety of Leonardo's career, his incredible mind and his diverse achievements in science, art, engineering, architecture, music, optics, mathematics and more. To create the exhibit, contemporary Italian craftsmen reconstructed some of Leonardo's inventions by following his manuscripts and specifications, and, when possible, using materials and techniques that were available in 15th-century Italy.

"It's important that families know that this is not an art exhibit but a presentation of his complete body of work," said Chris Cropper of the Maryland Science Center. "We . . . hope that children and their parents see the exhibit and then see in their own lives all that's possible if you let your imagination soar."

Leonardo created prophetic plans for helicopters, tanks and cameras, even scuba gear, centuries before their time. In the exhibit, many of the machines with moveable parts invite interactive learning, such as those that demonstrate principles of mechanics. Kids can turn one wheel that illustrates perpetual motion, another that sends balls hurtling into the air to explain kinetic energy, and get their hands on pulleys, cranks and levers, too.

"I know kids will love playing with all these things they can crank and swing around," 10-year-old Zophia Pryzby of Reston said while checking out a device that became the basis for the modern-day internal combustion engine.

Zophia's brother Jeremy, 14, was interested in the fact that Leonardo had designed the first theater spotlight. "I like to act, but I had no idea that he was involved in theater. I learned that the light box he made for shadow effects was the grandfather of movie projectors," Jeremy said.

Even teens who groan at the thought of a museum visit may be fascinated to discover that so many inventions were born on the pages of Leonardo's notebooks. As Charles Waugh, 14, of Hagerstown observed: "I was wowed by the warfare section. The weapons, the tank, helicopter, ladders -- basically, all of our current weapons are based on his plans."

The exhibit doesn't neglect Leonardo's most famous artworks. The Louvre in Paris gave special permission to have the "Mona Lisa" photographed out of its frame, using the highest-definition lens available. That allowed for a virtual peeling away of centuries of deterioration and "restoration" efforts by later artists. The result is a computer-generated look at the masterpiece as Leonardo depicted her, as well as dramatic wall texts proclaiming "25 secrets never before known about the Mona Lisa." From an explanation of the odd position of her arms (she's holding a blanket across her lap) to the discovery of sketches behind the original, this portion of the exhibit provides sleuthlike findings reminiscent of a Dan Brown novel.

"I liked the 'Mona Lisa' section and learning how he painted it one way but then it decayed over centuries," said Jenna Cole, 11, of Danville, Pa. "I couldn't believe how much the painting's been through. I didn't know someone threw a rock at it or that it had been stolen!"


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