How do you do visual justice to so much creative genius?
I’ve just come back from a few blissful days in Tuscany – more on this in a later post – part of which was devoted to the visit of the Leonardo museum in Vinci, just West of Florence.
This quick post is devoted to this exclusively as the visit influenced my understanding of the great man and I tried to convey this new perception through the photographs on this page.
First, a disclaimer, though : most of the explanations in the museum were in Italian, which I merely balbutiate, so the following text is purely a personal interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci’s state of mind and intentions 😉
If you’re in the area, I highly recommend a trip to the museum. It does a great job of presenting visual and video explanations of how the various inventions worked. What I came to realise is how specialized each is. Unlike today’s modern crane, the one above was designed purely to erect the steeple of a church, for instance. The videos are captivating.
Two other facts also struck me.
One was that Leonardo da Vinci worked essentially on industrial processes, particularly for the weaving of textile.
The second was that very few of his inventions were ever turned into actual production machines. The techniques of the time lagged behind human imagination, particularly that of a creative genius.
Couple this with the fact that Leonardo was first and foremost an artist! Imagine being an artist, working on industrial machines and seeing your designs relegated to cupboards. Frustrating, right?
My personal extrapolation is that most of those machines were personal dreams, put to paper. So my photographs try to create an abstract feel, as if they were photos of ideas rather than of physical contraptions.
The other fascinating impression that this visit left me with is that Leonardo tried to create a grammar of mechanical creativity. Pulleys do this. Worm wheels do that. Levers serve this purpose. Worms screws serve this other purpose. In order to transform linear motion into circular motion, do this. In order to lift using translation, do that. Rotation gets preserved here, inverted there. And so on, in order to empower others down the line to devise industrial machines, almost as though he wanted to devoted himself to more intangible dreams such as flight, for which no physical litteracy yet existed.
That sort of grammar is what makes wine tasting so interesting and universal, for instance, and, to my mind, is sorely lacking in the world of photography.
So I was drawn to those basic elements of transmission of force in my photographs. Cogs, axes, ropes, levers, … the A C G T of Leonardo’s mechanical world.
Of course, all of this is purely personal speculation. Having no real prior knowledge of the man’s work and understanding only a few words of the explanations on the wall, it could all be completely wrong.
Does it matter if I’m out of line, though?
I don’t think so. Ideas guide our photography. That’s all that matters. All photography is interpretation. And since this isn’t journalism intended to report on a hypothetical truth, the fact that the photographs only convey an impression is largely irrelevant. Positively irrelevant.
Final guessing note 😉 There’s a model of a self-powered “car” in the museum. It was built in the 20th century following sketches left by Leonardo. Multiple attempts at understanding how it was supposed to work have been made over the years by academics all over the world. It doesn’t. Work. The exhibit hints at some limitations in Leonardo’s understanding of mechanics.
Could it be that he was just leaving a joke for the future, though? Given that he did just that with Mona Lisa’s smile, I wouldn’t put it past him, and would find that extremely funny.
Let me end with this final photograph of a side exhibition presenting robots and exo-skeletons created by a local university. It’s really interesting to think that, in spite of the centuries, the software and artificial intelligence involved, the goal remains similar and the mechanics remain based on the same principles.
I can’t think of a finer legacy.
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