Da Vinci’s dreams made real: 40 Renaissance inventions dominate Berkshire Museum

  • Berkshire Museum’s Chief Experience Officer Craig Langlois explains the details of Leonardo da Vinci’s military tank to museum visitors. Four people would operate its wheels while another four would fire cannons. The artist was a pacifist; however, he designed many weapons of war. Courtesy photo/Berkshire Museum

  • A Berkshire Museum visitor operates Leonardo da Vinci’s “Wing Trial,” designed circa 1487. The artist theorized that the upstroke of the device, designed like a bat’s wing, could lift significant weights. His drawings called for a mechanism measuring 40-by-40-feet, which he estimated could lift 200 pounds. Courtesy photo/Berkshire Museum

  • A visitor to Berkshire Museum manipulates a counterweight device, the basic principle employed in modern day elevators. Leonardo da Vinci made improvements on a design first found in the notes of the Roman architect Vitruvius made around 236 BC. Courtesy photo/Berkshire Museum

  • Leonardo da Vinci was mesmerized by the idea of human flight, and his theories about basic aerodynamics were sound. By adding a tail to da Vinci’s centuries-old glider design, a brave Californian successfully became airborne a few years ago. Courtesy photo/Berkshire Museum

  • Leonardo da Vinci’s “Turin” portrait of 1570 is found on posters throughout Berkshire Museum’s exhibit. Scholars argue whether this is a self-portrait of the artist or of his father, the notary Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci. The red chalk image, however, bears a strong resemblance to earlier self-portraits of da Vinci. Courtesy photo/Berkshire Museum

For the Recorder
Published: 4/17/2019 5:47:31 PM

“Learning never exhausts the mind.” — Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)

Had he only been the illegitimate child of a well-to-do Italian notary and a peasant woman, his name might have been lost to the tides of history. Instead, this largely self-educated figure from the Tuscan village of Vinci became known for two of history’s most famous paintings, as well as tomes of brilliant writings.

Some 7,200 pages of Leonardo da Vinci’s observations, drawings and proposed inventions have survived. Through May 19 at Pittsfield’s Berkshire Museum, you can operate many of the more than three dozen of his imagined machines brought to life.

“He’s basically the embodiment of what we all strive to be. He’s breaking boundaries and pushing things forward,” said Berkshire Museum’s Chief Experience Officer Craig Langlois.

‘A traveling salesman’

If not born out-of-wedlock, da Vinci would have been raised in his father’s house, receiving a formal education and joining in the sixth generation of the family’s profession of legal work. Instead, for the first five years of his life, he was raised by his indigent mother. He then lived in his father’s home, where it was found he had a facility for drawing.

At age 15 he was sent to Florence, apprenticing under artist and sculptor Verrocchio. By his early 20s, he was collaborating with the artist on biblically-themed paintings. In time he mastered perspective and introduced a technique of shadowing — a pioneering use of “sfumato,” creating smoky, blurred edges and backgrounds while making characters seem almost three-dimensional. His paintings of the “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper” were breakthroughs in artistic technique.

At 30, he began creating voluminous notebooks, wildly overrun with drawings, theories and conclusions as to anatomy, geology, hydraulics and flying machines. It’s estimated that at least half of these papers have been lost. By this age, he was confident of his mechanical and engineering abilities.

“He was a traveling salesman,” Langlois said. “He was moving around Europe and found people who needed different sorts of engineering and designs.”

During his career, he was the court engineer to several rulers, including King Louis XII of France.

Unbounded curiosity

Dominating the exhibit and a lure for any child is the realization of da Vinci’s military tank. It was designed in 1487, a concept a full 400 years ahead of its time.

The artist took inspiration from turtle shells, and the contraption resembles an Italian space ship. When you enter, you’ll find four independent wheels operated by manpower. Four other men would operate small cannons from the armored vehicle, topped off with an observation tower.

Da Vinci was a pacifist and abhorred war, calling it “brutal insanity;” however, he designed many armaments, including a precursor to the breech-loading machine gun. It’s suggested that the artist, a vegetarian who adored animals, was seeking to supplant the prevailing use of horses and elephants in battle.

“There’s mixed research on this,” Langlois said. “Some believe that the traveling salesman aspect of him overcame the pacifist aspect.”

Da Vinci conceived of a robotic knight in armor and an enormous crossbow, 80 feet in width, designed to quietly hurl cannonballs at blinding speed.

A group of British engineers took on the challenge of creating such a weapon and spent 11 weeks experimenting with laminated wood and 10 tons of iron framing. The rig heaved a cannonball a puny 150 feet and they concluded that they had strayed too far from the original design.

Many of the museum’s exhibits, built by the Texas firm Evergreen Creations, allow for hands-on demonstrations, including a model sawmill potentially run by a waterwheel. It’s elaborate, as are many other inventions and improvements he created with complex gearing, ball bearings and cams.

Johannes Gutenberg had perfected the first moveable type printing press by 1450. It required at least two people to operate, was noisy, unpredictable and, from a safety standpoint, an OSHA nightmare. In 1478 da Vinci devised a pressurized printer that simply required one operator.

Many of his imagined creations were never realized as working machines, although his wheelbarrow contraption for measuring distance was practical and easily constructed.

Knowing the circumference of the cart’s wheels, overhead gears turned a perforated disc. For every revolution of the wheel, a disc slot opened to drop a pebble into a bin. Multiply the wheel’s circumference by the accrued pebbles and you have an ancient odometer.

Although pressurized diving suits weren’t first experimented with until the early 1900s, da Vinci designed such apparatus. The webbed feet of ducks inspired him to design outsized gloves to facilitate movement in water. The artist also designed life preservers and lightweight pontoon boots so an individual could walk on water.

Flighty ideas

Da Vinci recalled that he was first mesmerized by the concept of flight when, as a small child, a bird of prey landed in his crib, touching his face with its tail feathers.

As an adult, he studied the properties of a wing’s lift and drag, and his basic theories were later proven to be sound.

Da Vinci designed various flying machines referred to as “ornithopters.” Not all worked. A human-powered, gear-driven device allowed the occupant to flap his or her wings until the end of time with no results.

A fearless Californian, however, using the artist’s glider design, successfully flew it after adding a tail apparatus.

In 2000, Adrian Nicholas of London reinforced da Vinci’s pyramidal parachute design and plunged earthward. It not only worked, he described the ride as smoother than conventional parachutes.

The artist designed several human-powered aircraft, none of them workable with 16th-century materials.

In 1979, the first authentic use of a human-powered flying machine was realized when “The Gossamer Albatross” crossed the English Channel. The pedal-powered aircraft reached a speed of 18 mph and it was all the pilot could do to remain above the ocean.

For all of these wellsprings of design and theory, da Vinci was also known to leave paintings and other works unfinished.

“He has this torrent of ideas just stirring in his head and they won’t leave him alone,” art historian James Saslow said in the documentary “Leonardo’s Dream Machines.” “There’s too much inspiration. ... At some point he needed to stop coming up with the big ideas and sit and work with the ordinary nuts and bolts.”

Langlois is hopeful that visitors will leave the exhibit “in awe of this man, and continue their curiosity of who he was and what he was trying to accomplish in his lifetime. ... He wasn’t limited by concepts or material or subject matter.”

Leonardo da Vinci: Machines in Motion” continues through May 19. In another gallery, through May 5, you can hear taped oral histories from members, past and present, of the Berkshire County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The accounts range from that of Churchill Cotton, a descendant of Frederick Douglass, to that of the Rev. Esther Dozier, the first female pastor at Great Barrington’s Clinton AME Church.

Admission is $13 for adults and $6 for children. Children ages 3 and under are admitted for free. Berkshire Museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.

Don Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Plainfield. He has written for the Greenfield Recorder since 1994.

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