We revere Leonardo da Vinci for his industry, but even more so for his imagination. Most of us would envision ourselves, had we lived in the late 15th or early 16th century, being perfectly content with having painted the Mona Lisa. But Leonardo had designs on a host of other domains as well, most of them not strictly artistic. His ventures into science and engineering made him the archetypal polymath “Renaissance man,” but he was also a man before his time: most of the inventions he came up with and documented in his writings couldn’t have been built when he lived.
Over the past six centuries, however technological developments have turned more and more of Leonardo’s machines possible — or at least conceivable to the non-visionary. Take, for instance, the bridge only put successfully to the test when MIT researchers 3D-printed it in 2019.
Alas, however advanced our materials in the 21st century, they have yet to prove equal to the ornithopter, a rig meant to bestow upon man the power of flight by giving him a pair of birdlike wings. But you can see it in action in the short video at the top of this post, the first in a series called “Da Vinci Reborn.”
Produced by the 3D software-maker Dassault Systèmes, these videos reveal the inner workings of Leonardo’s inventions, built and unbuilt. Apart from his fanciful ornithopter, they realistically render his odometer, self-centering drill, aerial screw, and self-supporting bridge (which, as we’ve previously featured here on Open Culture, you can actually build yourself). It’s one thing to see these machines diagrammed and hear them explained, but quite another to witness them put into computer-generated action.
Even as these videos help us understand how Leonardo’s ingenious creations worked, they remind us that Leonardo himself had to invent them without the benefit of computer-aided design — with little more, in fact, than pen, paper, and the Renaissance-era tools at hand. For him, when the self-centering drill bored straight through a log or the aerial screw took to the air, they did so only in his imagination. It was only there that he could test, refine, and reassemble the mechanisms that together constituted many of the inventions that still impress us today.
It must be something like stepping into Leonardo’s mind, then, to experience the Dassault-designed Da Vinci Castle playground, which virtually places these inventions and others on the lawn in front of the Château du Clos Lucé. It was there that the great Renaissance man came to the end of his life in 1619, having entered the service of King Francis I’s service after the French monarch recaptured Milan four years earlier. Leonardo himself would surely appreciate this geographical touch — and even more so, the fact that humanity is still bringing such high technology to bear on the project of understanding his work.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.