The Ingenious Inventions of Leonardo da Vinci Recreated with 3D Animation

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Inven­tions Come to Life as Muse­um-Qual­i­ty, Work­able Mod­els: A Swing Bridge, Scythed Char­i­ot, Per­pet­u­al Motion Machine & More

How to Build Leonar­do da Vinci’s Inge­nious Self-Sup­port­ing Bridge: Renais­sance Inno­va­tions You Can Still Enjoy Today

MIT Researchers 3D Print a Bridge Imag­ined by Leonar­do da Vin­ci in 1502— and Prove That It Actu­al­ly Works

Leonar­do da Vin­ci Draws Designs of Future War Machines: Tanks, Machine Guns & More

Watch Leonar­do da Vinci’s Musi­cal Inven­tion, the Vio­la Organ­ista, Being Played for the Very First Time

A Com­plete Dig­i­ti­za­tion of Leonar­do Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanti­cus, the Largest Exist­ing Col­lec­tion of His Draw­ings & Writ­ings

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.

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