#1174. Photographing Leonardo da Vinci’s imagination

By pascaljappy | Travel Photography

Feb 28

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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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    There is of course also his last house – the Château du Clos Lucé, at Amboise in the Loire Valley – which is also a museum of his inventions.

    This is not directed at you – but at the people who did this –
    “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.”

    Why does someone from a generation hundreds of years after the death of this great man think it is appropriate for them to demean and ridicule him in this fashion? Instead of saying “Hey – look – this guy conceptualised and invented the aeroplane, a self-propelled cart, the helicopter, the anemometer, the armoured car, the parachute, and so on. I think it showed extraordinary prescience and foresight, to invent the parachute – after he’d invented the aeroplane!

    Or this – the guy was an artist, for God’s sake – and look at all the inventions he came up with? Maybe he never got all of them to work – as recently as a bit over a hundred years ago, nobody else could either! – so my father’s generation barely squeaked it in, to get such inventions off the cutting floor.

    No bicycles here though – and all shot in B&W. You don’t appear to have been drowning in tourists to get these shots. I never knew the Italians also had a Da Vinci museum, if I ever get back to Tuscany I must look in myself. Like so many great men and women, Leonardo was a very complex man, and it is always fascinating to learn more about him. Thanks for sharing these photos with us, Pascal.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks, Pete. I don’t think anyone was trying to mock him, only trying hard to understand why the design built from the sketches didn’t work. But the contraption is so overcomplicated that it looks like a joke to me 😉

      All of the machines we saw in videos work perfectly, they just weren’t built in his time because he was a bit ahead of theirs 😉

      Bicycles … drat!! How could I forget, there was this lovely setup just outside the museum and I took a photo of it just for you. So here it is, a bit late 😉


  • Nancee Rostad says:

    What a clever idea to abstract Leonardo’s design abstractions! While he never fully realized many, if any of his mechanical designs, you have been able to fully realize pictorial representations of them. Do you ever wonder what Leonardo would think about the camera?

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you Nancee 🙂 He would probably marvel at the camera. I once read – but it was most likely fake news – that he obscured the rose window of a church and painted the wall opposite it with egg yoke to produce a pinhole camera and record the picture of the buildings opposite the church. True or not, it’s a lovely idea 😉

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Brilliant question Nancee!

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