Go back to article: The birth of a collection in Milan: from the Leonardo Exhibition of 1939 to the opening of the National Museum of Science and Technology in 1953

The 1953 Leonardo da Vinci exhibition for the fifth centenary of his birth

The idea of replicating the success of the 1939 Leonardesca exhibition by means of a permanent exhibition in Milan took form ten years later. A key role in this project was played by engineer Guido Ucelli, who was president of the Riva-Calzoni Company[12] and had been working since the 1930s for the establishment of a National Science Museum in Milan. Surprisingly, Ucelli was present and gave an effective contribution as president of the Riva Company both to the Chicago 1933 and Milano 1939 exhibitions. His influence and reputation grew at the end of the 1920s when, following the order of Benito Mussolini, he succeeded in recovering two Roman ships from Lake Nemi near Rome, draining the lake itself. After the Second World War Ucelli didn’t lose his reputation and could finally realise his project for the birth of a Science Museum, joining his efforts together with the works of the National Committee for the fifth centenary celebrations of Leonardo’s birth.

In 1949, the honourable Achille Marazza, president of the committee, presented to the mayor of Milan the project for an exhibition on Leonardo with which to inaugurate the Museum of Technology, then under construction. On 15 April 1950, Mayor Antonio Greppi approved the programme, and the exhibition was laid out during the next three years, with an immense project of study and interpretation of Leonardo’s drawings. As Marazza highlighted in the lines of the official program, the purpose of the celebrations was:

…to reconstruct, through a series of exhibitions, that aspect of universality which the prodigy of that spiritual unity had in the Great Tuscan, which today, more than ever, is in our aspirations. (Marazza, 1952, s.p.)

The Milan exhibition, coordinated by engineer Carlo Rossi, tended toward an essentially technical-scientific reading, with highly didactic overtones, in a perspective of distinct separation between Leonardo’s different activities, thus leaving at Vinci the events around the birth, at Florence the artistic works, and, in Venice, the Renaissance context. The purpose of the Milan exhibition, according to the preliminary program, was:

…to show progressively to what extent historical science and technology had survived during the Middle Ages, and how much had been acquired at the time Leonardo lived; and toward this aim, to realize in the most complete expository form the fruits of his speculations in all fields, continuing the exhibit with what had been accomplished after him, and proceeding gradually in time to reach the most recent and significant realizations of our own days. (Marazza 1952, s.p.)

The exhibition was in fact situated at the beginning of a developmental programme for the Museum, which was just opening to the public, but which would inaugurate its sections only progressively through the next fifteen years. Leonardo thus became the paradigm of excellence and Italian creativity, of the capacity to resolve problems in an ingenious manner, of the independence of Italian industry.

Within the scientific committee there was a massive presence of members of the armed forces, who took care of a large number of the models thanks to the skills of technicians who worked in several model workshops. After losing the Second World War, the activity of the Italian Army in terms of the research and design of new military technologies was largely restricted[13], and this gave the possibility in terms of availability of time and people for contributing to the creation of the models. Standing out among the authors were Alberto Mario Soldatini and Vittorio Somenzi from Military Aeronautics, who designed all the models relating to Flight, and successively many utensil machines and the large plastic model for the Ideal City. Army general Giovenale Argan coordinated the study group for the realisation of war machines, while Luigi Tursini of the Navy presided over the group working on ship models. Very interesting, furthermore, was the contribution from the Historical Institute of the Engineer Corps, which realised some plaster models of fortifications and military architecture with great precision and mastery. The projects by these scholars were subsequently realised in Army model workshops and arsenals, from Rome to La Spezia, from Turin to Castellammare di Stabia.

The technical drawings and plans for the 1939 models constituted an important source for the reconstructions, often small-scale, effected in those years. Some scholars who were not part of the Army, such as Giorgio Canestrini, Giovanni Strobino, and Ladislao Reti, participated in the realisations for both exhibitions, at fourteen years’ distance from one another.

Figure 5

Technical drawing in ink for a model of a rotating crane

Technical drawing for the model of a rotating crane for the Mostra Leonardesca of 1939.

Figure 6

Colour photograph of a wooden model of a self propelled car

Model of a self propelled cart, by Giovanni Canestrini.

Figure 7

Colour photograph of the detailed workings of a wooden model of a self propelled car

Detail of a model of a self propelled cart, by Giovanni Canestrini.

On 15 February 1953, on the occasion of the inauguration of the National Museum of Science and Technology, the models were displayed for the first time in the exhibition Scienza e Tecnica di Leonardo (Science and Technology of Leonardo). Subsequently the models were donated officially to the Museum by the National Committee, thence becoming part of the permanent collection. Alberto Mario Soldatini thus projected an exhibition setup for the gallery, which was inaugurated in 1956 with the integration of a new series of models that aimed at correcting the imbalance in the military direction that had been manifested in the 1953 exhibition. For this, many models were constructed of work machines, in addition to the large urban plastic model for the Ideal City.

The models were presented on crystal tables, in a suggestive thread that matched well with the monumental volumes of the monastic gallery. They were accompanied by crystal panels bearing didactic inscriptions in relief, cursive characters, and beside these were copies of the manuscripts of Leonardo that were referenced and an interpretative technical drawing. The exhibition setup was completed with wooden panels with large black-and-white reproductions of details of paintings and drawings by Leonardo, with obvious reference to the evocative and scenographic use of photography from the 1939 exhibition, here used however in a more orderly, less creative manner.

Figure 8

Black and white photograph of a corridor in which is displayed a number of leonardo models paintings and information plaques

Panoramic View of the Leonardo da Vinci Gallery in the Museum in 1953.

The approach selected was extremely innovative considering the times, because the models served as instruments of mediation for the greater public, capable of rendering Leonardo’s thoughts by interpreting the drawings, using a language that all could understand. In fact, the models, both in the 1939 and 1953 exhibitions, were always presented to the public without explaining this museological issue and for this reason the misconception that they were intended to be ‘reconstructions’ of Leonardo da Vinci inventions consolidated throughout the years and is still commonly present today.

With its encyclopedic flavour in presenting its admirable series of inventions, this gallery demonstrated that in 1953 – in a political climate completely different from that of 1939 – the idea of presenting Leonardo as anticipatory genius and paradigm of the Italian culture undeniably remained very powerful. Furthermore, the museological project focused only in the presentation of Leonardo’s studies as engineer with a display of the models, isolating him from the historical and geographical context of his time.

Figure 9

Black and white photograph of a corridor in which are displayed a number of leonardo models paintings and information plaques

Panoramic View of the Leonardo da Vinci Gallery in the Museum in 1953.


Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150404/003