There is a continuity to the placement of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Codex on the Flight of Birds,” in the same exhibition gallery as the Wright brothers’ 1903 Flyer at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. It is not merely a reach across time to connect the scientific underpinnings of flight. It is a symbolic reach across worlds and minds to reestablish the unifying ethos that art and science are intrinsic to each other.
And that both look to the natural world, sometimes couched as the heavens, for inspiration.
The codex, an eight-by-six-inch personal notebook made up of 18 two-sided pages, is a collection of notes and sketches on bird flight and behavior from the early 16th century. Written in the Italian Renaissance master’s mirror script — backward and reading from right to left — it explores ideas of flight engineering, aerodynamics and what would later be defined as gravity.
The concept of air as a fluid moving over a bird’s wings, or the relation between the center of gravity and the lifting point on a wing “were concepts and beginning ideas about flight now seen in the ideas that da Vinci was investigating,” Air and Space Museum chief curator Peter Jakab said.
Da Vinci is world famous, of course, as the artist behind the “Mona Lisa” and the “Last Supper.” But in the early 19th century, his thinking on anatomy, physics and engineering began to surface with the reemergence of his notebooks, many of which had been lost for hundreds of years. As they gained recognition, “people saw retrospectively how prescient da Vinci was, and that many of his ideas were realized in later times,” Jakab said.
The codex is on loan from the Biblioteca Reale in Turin, Italy, for the 40-day exhibition, which comes as the United States and Italy commemorate 50 years of space collaboration. It is only the second da Vinci artifact in the United States — the other being the Ginevra de’ Benci painting on display at the National Gallery of Art. The linkage between Renaissance ideas and modern times was on the mind of Italian Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero, who delivered exhibition remarks Thursday while sporting a Google Glass headset, which he called promising for digital diplomacy.
“Frankly, there is no better way to talk about creativity than with Leonardo, and to celebrate his genius and spirit of innovation, through the future of technology,” Bisogniero said. He cited his own decades-long passion for flight.
“In words attributed to Leonardo himself and I quote: ‘Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward. For there you have been, and there you will always long to return.’ ”
A model of an ornithopter — an aircraft designed to imitate the flapping of bird wings — based on a da Vinci drawing, is on loan from an Italian manufacturer for a year and hangs just outside the Wright brothers gallery. In another science/art intersection, the Mars Curiosity rover carries a digitized version of the codex and da Vinci’s self-portrait onboard.
The Air and Space exhibition features an image of the 1512 da Vinci self-portrait. And in a nearby interactive, the codex is digitized and visitors can use a touch screen to page through the entire document with English translations. One page tantalizingly features what historians think may be another da Vinci self-portrait, finely drawn in red on the upper half of the page, with the codex writing over it.
People draw hard, fast distinctions between “engineers, and how their minds work, and artists and painters who aren’t seen as mechanical,”Jakab said. And while in some ways that’s true, “it’s all creativity.”
At the same time da Vinci was writing and drawing in his codex on flight — between 1505 and 1506 — he created the “Mona Lisa,” widely considered the most famous painting in the world. “It is a powerful experience to be in the presence of something created by da Vinci,” Jakab said. He is “the ultimate example” of the connection between art and science. Proof, perhaps, that at the highest levels of human achievement, they are one and the same.
On exhibit through Oct. 22 at the National Air and Space Museum, Independence Avenue and Sixth Street SW.