from Brunelleschi to Leonardo da Vinci
Above all else, the Renaissance has traditionally been seen as an extraordinary flowering of arts and letters. The persistence of this view has long obscured the revival of technical activity that began in the late fourteenth century notably in Italy and lasted, with undiminished vigor, through the fifteenth century.
A close examination of the process shows that its prime movers were, in most cases, the same “artists” (“artificers” might be a more suitable term) who led the radical renewal of painting, sculpture, and architecture during those decades. Indeed, it is all too often forgotten that Renaissance artists were routinely involved in activities that we would now define as engineering. Moreover, their workplace –the celebrated “artist’s workshop” of the Renaissance– had more in common with a bustling factory than with the modern cliché of an artist’s studio.
This helps to explain the long-held belief, still widespread today, that Leonardo was an utterly unique manifestation in his time – a brilliant scientist and engineer, as well as a peerless artist. In other words, his greatest inventions are regarded as the product of a towering genius who anticipated by centuries the technical achievements of the modern age, not as the attempts of a singularly gifted man to satisfy the expectations and aspirations prevailing in his cultural environment.
This historical context provided the inspiration for the present exhibition, which has two basic goals. The first is to put on public display the most significant technical achievements of some of the artist-engineers who preceded Leonardo. These forerunners were instrumental in defining and subsequently winning recognition for a new breed of professional: the artist-engineer-architect-author, who soon attained a secure status throughout Europe.
The second and main aim of the show is to provide tangible evidence of the fact that Leonardo’s “universal” intellectual experience embracing art, technology, and science was not an isolated phenomenon, but rather the supremely creative culmination of a long process: the renewal of technical knowledge that persisted throughout the Renaissance, nurturing and stimulating all sectors of artistic endeavor.
The exhibition thus restores to its proper place a major cultural phenomenon that can be described as the “renaissance of machines”, a phenomenon still unfamiliar today because it has been dwarfed and obscured by the revival of arts and letters.
The show comprises three sections, devoted respectively to Filippo Brunelleschi, the Sienese engineers (Taccola and Francesco di Giorgio), and Leonardo da Vinci.
One of the prime attractions is an array of large, vivid silk-screen prints, forming a gallery of “machine portraits” by the major artist-engineers of the fifteenth century.
A key attraction is the series of about fifty spectacular working models of the most significant machines built or designed by Renaissance artist-engineers and Leonardo. The models were constructed with the same materials and techniques used in the fifteenth century. Thanks to state-of-the-art multimedia applications, these models are put into motion, enabling visitors to understand how the devices worked.
Several dozen notebooks by Leonardo and his colleagues are also on display. These documents abound with masterful drawings and elaborate notes on applied mechanics. Thanks to the software, visitors can browse them at leisure.
The models of Renaissance machines, together with the other exhibits, turn the spectator into an active traveler on a journey filled with fascinating discoveries. At the end, the traveler will emerge with a new image of the Renaissance, richer and more elaborate than the conventional view.