Go back to article: The Science Museum and the Leonardo da Vinci Quincentenary Exhibition of 1952

The models in 2016

All the models from the 1952 exhibition survive in the Science Museum today, as do many of the photographic prints and most of the negatives (though deterioration with age has meant that some have been remade).[42] Some of the models will once again go on public display to accompany the travelling exhibition ‘Leonardo da Vinci: the Mechanics of Genius’, that will open at the Science Museum in February 2016. This exhibition is itself built around forty of the models first displayed in Milan in 1953. Both sets of models were influential early instances of what has become a major strand in exhibitions on Leonardo.

The incoming exhibition has a modern display idiom, with interactive demonstrations and video installations in a spacious presentation of large panels and images. In a series of major international venues, it has to meet the expectations of today’s visitors. There is no original material but there is a thoughtful agenda and a narrative to support it; this is not an uncritical presentation of Leonardo as a wizard inventor. It seeks to dispel misunderstandings and to encourage thoughtful reflection on the character of Leonardo’s genius. Two critical points are established at the beginning: not all the drawings of machines should be thought of as ‘inventions’ and, in producing such drawings, Leonardo was part of a technical culture with many participants. Distinct sections on aspects of Leonardo’s work then contribute to a concluding notion of ‘unifying knowledge’: Leonardo’s technical resources and talents were used to support his natural inclination to draw together insights and techniques from disciplines that most of his contemporaries would have treated as distinct. A thoughtful exhibition based around what are presented as ‘historical models’, supplemented by the slightly earlier examples from the Science Museum, will create an opportunity to think about the part model-making has played in shaping the popular appreciation of Leonardo.

Historians and philosophers of science have been interested in the role that physical models in general have played in discovery, explanation and learning (Hesse, 1963; Morgan and Morrison, 1999; Chadarevian and Hopwood, 2004). How do they function in the scientific discourse – only by analogy, or as candidate accounts of reality, however partial? Other historians have used close reproductions of instruments or have carefully reworked experiments as techniques for recovering knowledge and skill not recorded from the original instances (Sibum, 1995). The Leonardo models, however, are different; they sit outside any of these discussions and projects. They represent nothing that existed in Leonardo’s time and his drawings do not contain enough information to build them without assumption and interpretation. Perhaps their value to the discipline of history is that they enforce very detailed examination of the drawings, which can yield new insights. Beyond this, the building of models is a response to different imperatives: those of the museum gallery and exhibition. Stories such as this one are needed if we are to understand how models have become so conspicuous in the public appreciation of Leonardo.

We can see concerns from the early days of modelling, in Britain at least, in the archives of the Science Museum. Accuracy was to be prioritised over spectacle: the drawings were to be the principal guides, not the large models of 1939. There was concern also that Leonardo himself may not have made any models or had plans for full-scale machines, and visitors should not be misled into assuming otherwise. There was a realisation, as there would naturally be in the Science Museum, that single-viewpoint perspective drawings were an inadequate guide and that much would have to be assumed or embellished in the process of designing and building the models. Accuracy was bound to be compromised.

What we do not find in the early record is anxiety over whether model-making might run counter to the spirit as well as the factual record of Leonardo’s work. Over sixty years later, we might ask whether the present ubiquity and familiarity of models is affecting how we view Leonardo’s project of, as the exhibition puts it, ‘universal knowledge’? Sherwood Taylor was scarcely alone in seeing a shared sensibility across the range of subjects for Leonardo’s drawings, natural as well as artificial, pointing to ‘…his attempt to find common elements in the working of very different parts of the world, human, organic and inorganic’ (Sherwood Taylor, 1952b). There can be little doubt that models have helped create the current appetite for Leonardo exhibitions, but the historical perspective of the incoming example, especially at the Science Museum, where the British story began, can be an occasion for reflection on where this trend might lead. If we make drawing for Leonardo, at least in the case of his machines, principally a matter of ‘designing’ (in the modern sense), might we compromise our appreciation of his drawing as a tool of understanding and knowing? (Galluzzi, 1996, pp 46–85, 187–239; Kemp, 2006, pp 62–77)



I am grateful for help from colleagues in Oxford, Matthew Landrus and Tony Simcock, and at the Science Museum, Rory Cook, David Exton and John Liffen.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150403/007