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 first models of machines, Chicago World’s Fair and the 1939 exhibition in Milan

The history of the study of Leonardo’s technological drawings and of their interpretation by means of models had its beginnings in the preceding decades, owing in particular to the progressive reproduction of facsimiles and complete critical transcriptions of Leonardo’s manuscripts, which made them more easily accessible. Among these editions, very important work was done by Giovanni Piumati, curating the transcription and critical edition of the Codex Atlanticus in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana between 1894 and 1904 in a sumptuous version from the presses of Ulrico Hoepli.

During those same years, studies of Leonardo’s scientific works proliferated: fundamental was the work of Theodor Beck, who was one of the first engineers to attempt a philological reading of the drawings and provide an interpretation of them using modern diagrams. In 1906, on the occasion of the international exhibition for the opening of the Simplon Tunnel, Luca Beltrami hypothesised constructing a model of a flying machine based on Leonardo’s manuscripts, but the idea remained on paper.

It was only in 1929, for the First National Exhibition of the History of Science in Florence, that scholars Raffaele Giacomelli and Giuseppe Schneider produced the first eight models, all in the field of aeronautics: already from these precocious examples questions began arising on problems of interpreting Leonardo’s drawings and about how to counterbalance the scruples dictated by philology against the obvious need to make integrations to the drawings that, not being actual plans or projects, were often incomplete or lacking in details relating to mechanical or structural parts.

In 1933 the Italian Government decided to participate in the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago with an exhibition displaying the supremacy of Italy in Science and Technics, from the Ancient Civilisation to the present time. The exhibition was organised by the CNR (National Council of Research), which had been founded ten years earlier and was directed by Guglielmo Marconi. More than three hundred objects were displayed in the Hall of Science: among them we can find one of the earliest models designed thanks to the interpretation of a Leonardo da Vinci drawing: a spinning wheel with mobile wings by Giovanni Strobino, a scholar who was expert in the history of weaving. (Strobino is one of the few scholars who also contributed to the two following exhibitions, in 1939 and 1952.)


The success of the Leonardo models was consecrated ten years later, however, in 1939, by the Mostra di Leonardo e delle invenzioni italiane (Exhibition on Leonardo and Italian Inventions), which the press later rechristened La Leonardesca, organised in Milan at the Palazzo dell’Arte (today the Triennale).

Figure 1

Grainy black and white photograph of a section of the 1939 Leonardo exhibition clearly showing the wooden sling model in the foreground

Panoramic view of the Leonardo Exhibition in the Palazzo del’Arte in 1939.

The nationalistic key and the political encouragement with which the event was organised were decisive: with the Fascist era in full swing and just before the war, Leonardo became the symbol for celebrating autarchy and the supremacy of Italian genius, to exhibit with pride the successes of an Italy that had no need of technological contributions from foreign powers. This was the reason for displaying alongside the chief exhibition of Leonardo the principal novelties of Italian technology, among which were the first experimental television programmes in Italy, again in 1939, by the Italian public broadcasting monopoly EIAR (Ente Italiano per la Audizioni Radifoniche)[2]

Figure 2

Front cover of the 1939 exhibition showing Leonardos ink drawing of the profile of an armoured soldier

Cover of the catalogue: Mostra di Leonardo da Vinci e delle Invenzioni Italiane, Milano, Palazzo dell’Arte, 1939.

The purpose of the exhibition is to celebrate the universal and unequalled genius of Leonardo da Vinci, assumed as practically the symbol of all Latin and Christian, and therefore Roman, civilization, and to highlight the spiritual connections uniting this great man of accomplishments and creator with the realizations of Mussolinian and Imperial Italy. The combining of the Vincian celebrations with the exhibition of Italian inventions tends to demonstrate the continuity of the creative genius of the race and the great possibilities opening up to those within the climate of Fascist will [from the Exhibition programme, Mostra di Leonardo da Vinci e delle Invenzioni italiane, Milan, 1939][3].

The art section of the exhibition presented many masterworks by Leonardo and his school from all over the world. (Just a few months before the beginning of the Second World War, a very clever piece of diplomatic work succeeded in bringing paintings and drawings from both Germany and Great Britain to Milan.) Among the Leonardo drawings, a large selection of Windsor folios were present, together with drawings from the Duke of Devonshire Collection and the manuscripts preserved by the Institut de France in Paris[4]. Additionally, the originals of a large part of the archival documents collected to date relating to Leonardo’s life were exhibited.

This section was largely criticised by a part of the academic world, which considered the selection of artworks superficial and the supervision of Giorgio Nicodemi, Director of the Museums of the Castello Sforzesco, too compromised with the Fascist government; a fake painting by a private collector, called Madonna Noya, was also displayed. A very smart review of the exhibition, which was largely documented in the Italian and foreign press, was written and published by the novelist Carlo Emilio Gadda[5].

In spite of this climate, the exhibition marked a decisive phase in the study and, above all, the divulgation of Leonardo’s thoughts and works. The staging and setup of the exhibition was curated by architect Giuseppe Pagano, who was involved in the final months to coordinate a chaotic organization[6]. The exhibition was conceived with significant rhetorical excesses and emphatic tones characteristic of other exhibitions from the Fascist period. Great attention, however, was given to the reconstruction of historical context, along with an expert, scenographic use of photography.

The Executive Committee, coordinated by Giorgio Nicodemi for the scientific content and by Giuseppe Pagano for the scenography, was drawn from a rich constellation of scholars and architects, each of whom was entrusted with the organisation of one or more exhibition rooms.

By way of example, the monumental Atrium, with its highly evocative character and where the ‘column-raising’ machine which had been reconstructed on a colossal scale was exhibited, was curated by Giovanni Muzio; the Verrocchio Room, by Pietro Toesca; and the Leonardeschi Room, by Studio BBPR[7]. The scenography was largely influenced by the new rationalistic style, even if many period reconstructions were added, sometimes in a confused way.

Among the different sections of the exhibition, a prominent part was given to the display of the works of Leonardo as engineer. Around two hundred models were designed and built starting from the interpretation of Leonardo’s drawings. Engineer Arturo Uccelli was entrusted as head of the Models Office, where scholars including Giorgio Canestrini, Carlo Zammattio, Giovanni Strobino, Domenico Argentieri, and Luigi Tursini dedicated themselves to the study and interpretation of Leonardo’s manuscripts, to the execution of technical drawings for the cited inventions, and to the construction of related models[8].

Figure 3

Black and white photograph of a large wooden model of a hydraulic ventilator

Model of a Hydraulic Ventilator, Mostra Leonardesca of 1939.

Figure 4

Black and white photograph of a large wooden model of a canal excavating machine

Model of an excavating machine for constructing canals, Mostra Leonardesca of 1939.

Between 1938 and 1939, these experts also published many works dedicated to various aspects of Leonardo’s scientific activity, from Canestrini’s studies on motion to Strobino’s on textiles, from Argentieri’s researches on optics to Tursini’s naval weapons. The exhibition thus presented the results of these researches that even today, in spite of their being surpassed by newer, more up-to-date approaches, constitute important episodes in the divulgation of Leonardo’s technical thought. In this perspective, special rooms were prepared dedicated to Astronomy, Mathematics, Cartography, Hydraulics, Shipbuilding, Anatomy, Botany, Optics, Mechanics, and Flight. The latter room was curated by Raffaele Giacomelli himself, who ten years earlier had presented his first interpretations at Florence and London[9]. Even though attention was given most particularly to those machines that were considered ‘anticipatory’ of modern inventions, the process of the study and interpretation overall was serious and rigorous, and constituted a fundamental step for the history of Leonardo modelling. Many of the models were realised on a large scale, often finished with brilliant colours and many of them could be put in motion manually or by means of electric motors. Of course, there was some forcing on the interpretative level to allow for the contexts of theatrical staging, visitor involvement, and interactivity, heralding the times. Associated with the models were photographic enlargements from the Leonardo manuscripts to show the original drawings, and this pairing of drawing and model was to be maintained in the future museum gallery.

In an article published that same year in Casabella, Giuseppe Pagano described his interpretation of the exhibition and the reconstruction of Leonardo’s machines:

Remote from any idea of immediate utilization, from any background of false construction site, or false weaving mill, or false typography, the looms, the presses, the drainage machines, each exceptional or beyond-normal construction followed the same reasoning that first awakened Leonardo’s interest: the same disinterested reasoning. Rather than machines to be patented, these became rational devices, mechanical experiments of sublime value. It pleased us, then, to give to more than one of these machines an unexpected color, blood red, pastel pink, deep black, so as to animate also their merit in terms of line and mass, against the white walls. To some this seemed to be a sacrilege against science, but many understood that the colorings gave an illuminating accent to the mechanical groups, by subdividing them into logical groupings suggested by color alone and leading them to live a bit beyond their already deluded high-handedness.

And then he continued:

Nor, conversely, even if one had wanted simply to pursue further elaboration of these particular researches, in the most abstract scientific sense, would it have been possible here. Too many of the machines Leonardo designed had to be realized smaller than life-size, more as explicatory models or personal interpretations than as machines effectively conceived by Leonardo; too many others had to be presented more as expository objects than as functional machines. On the other hand, this could not be an industrial laboratory, but only an exhibition, and as such it had to submit to the same ordering criteria, and live in the same art atmosphere as all the rest of the Leonardesca exhibition (Pagano, 1939, pp 6–19).

The exhibition of the machine models was so successful that it was repeated in New York during the 1940 Universal Exposition[10], at the New York Museum of Science and Industry in the Rockefeller Center, which today no longer exists. This event, supported by the Italian Ministry of Popular Culture (Ministero della Cultura Popolare), was also a sign of gratitude to the United States for the generous loans of works of art to the 1939 Milan exhibition. In 1942 the models were once again displayed in Tokyo, but during their journey back to Italy they were destroyed when the ship transporting them was bombed[11].

Fortunately, a large number of the technical drawings realised for construction of the models based on interpretation of Leonardo’s studies survived destruction or dispersion. In the following years these would constitute precious documents toward being able to materialise the dream, merely outlined in 1939, of developing a permanent museum dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci and his technical works. A portion of the drawings are currently preserved in the Museum’s historical archives while the rest are preserved in the Ente Raccolta Vinciana in the Castello Sforzesco, Milan.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150404/002