Veni, vidi, da Vinci

Compared to this show, the Codex Leicester is just a notebook. The rest of Leonardo's genius—paintings, sculpture, sketches—goes up in Victoria.

The wizened face above Uncle Willy's all-you-can-eat buffet appears curiously out of place. Signed simply "Leonardo," the street banner shows Leonardo da Vinci as he depicted himself three years before his death 479 years ago. Brightly colored banners fly from lampposts all over Victoria, sprucing up the uninspired strip malls and car dealerships that curse Douglas Street, the main highway downtown.

Leonardo Da Vinci

Royal BC Museum, Victoria, 888-447-7977

till February 28, 1999

Other depictions of da Vinci, if any existed, have been lost, so the flowing white beard and piercing cold eyes that look from beneath his high forehead and bald scalp are how we know him. Victoria's Royal British Columbia Museum wants us to know more. To prepare for the greatest display of his life and works, it has demolished walls to expand galleries, sought insurance of $100 million Canadian ($64 million US), and heightened security.

The four-month exhibit, which begins this week, consists of 230 artifacts. Among them are 28 priceless masterpieces, including da Vinci's only surviving sculptures, Bust of Christ as a Youth and The Wax Horse. The exhibit mentions the Codex Leicester, the collection of da Vinci's notes and drawings purchased by Bill Gates for $25 million and displayed by the Seattle Art Museum last fall. Spokesman Chris Higgins puts the Royal BC Museum's show into perspective: "Seattle's exhibit was an appetizer."

Prepare for the main course.

North America's west coast has no shortage of world-class museums and galleries, but the German-based Institute for Cultural Exchange, which set up the traveling exhibit, deliberately chose the Royal BC Museum to become the show's second and final host on the continent (the Boston Museum of Science hosted it last summer).

"The museum turned down the invitation at first, thinking it would be a purely art-based exhibition," says Higgins. Curators reconsidered once they discovered the extent of the institute's focus on da Vinci's research and inventions and its collaboration with international museums and private collectors.

The logistics of mounting a spectacle on this scale are unlike anything the museum has undertaken in its 111 years. Questions to Higgins about security elicit the response, "It's none of your business," with as much courtesy as the phrase allows.

Despite having only two-thirds the space of Boston Science Museum, whose mounting of the exhibit attracted half a million people (SAM's Codex exhibit, by comparison, drew almost a quarter-million), the RBCM expects to accommodate 350 people an hour and have more room to display exhibits where congestion is highest.

"When you come face to face with a 500-year-old masterpiece, you want to spend a minute," says program producer Gordon Green, who oversees special events accompanying the exhibit.

Green says the museum's biggest concern was biting off more than it could chew. "Da Vinci's interests were so diverse, from botany to robotics, every aspect of life you can think of," he says. "I've had countless phone calls from people with great ideas about what we should be doing."

Exhibits coordinator Lorna Davey is getting used to the controlled chaos around her. Framed facsimiles of da Vinci's notes and drawings are propped against specially created walls painted in Renaissance colors, warm terra-cotta orange and blue. Models re-created from those notes and drawings lie in various stages of construction: a coin press, helicopter, multibarreled "machine gun," tank, swivel bridge, and fixed-wing glider. Computer terminals that will house more than 8,000 images on every aspect of da Vinci's work lie strewn across the floor.

What Davey is most excited by are the bulky crates packed up behind her. Inside are original paintings: The Virgin of the Rocks, Kissing Infants, and Raphael's The Young John the Baptist. "No offense to the rest of the exhibition, but they are it," says Davey.

Downstairs, the museum's basement is also in disarray. Parked between filing cabinets, storage racks, and a ladder is a 30-foot flying machine made of Sitka spruce, hemp, and dyed silk. Museum model-maker Robert Byers spent three months creating the 200-pound craft from a cartoonish photocopy of a da Vinci sketch. It's the first time he's designed a model knowing full well it couldn't work.

"It's a great concept," he says, "two men jumping on either side of the central frame to make the wings flap. But it would have needed a lot of adjustments."

Starting this week, visitors can expect to see an exhibit with three sections, focusing on the scientist, the inventor, and the artist. With a self-guided audio tour, the sections create a logical path through da Vinci's life. More than 150 facsimile sketches and drawings make up the science section and introduce his insights into the human anatomy, aerodynamics, and hydraulics. Da Vinci described war as "bestial madness," but knew there was money in weapons. Dozens of moving models, including a tank and a machine gun, help make up the inventor section.

The artist section includes 20 original paintings by Leonardo, Raphael, Bramantino, and other artists of the time. Complementing the exhibits will be hands-on displays and interactive terminals. Visitors can mix paint pigments as da Vinci did, compare his parachute with a modern one, and reassemble a plastic human cadaver. Terminals will also attempt to cover da Vinci's interest in music, cartography, architecture, theology, aviation, and biology.

It might take a genius to grasp fully the extent of da Vinci's impact on the world, but the RBCM's exhibition gives us the clearest insight yet into the full range of the man's achievements, a privilege denied to even those who knew him.

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