40 full-size replicas of Da Vinci inventions on exhibit

| Friday, Dec. 30, 2011

Luckily for us, and humanity, in general, Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) wasn't able to spend his spare time playing XBox and checking Facebook status updates.

Not content to be merely one of the greatest painters who has lived ("Mona Lisa," "The Last Supper," etc.), he also had superlative achievements in architecture, sculpture, mathematics, geology, writing, cartography, botany, engineering, music and invention.

Da Vinci's inventions, in particular, were stunning applications of his many diverse layers of genius.

Starting Monday, California University of Pennsylvania will be hosting an exhibit, "Leonardo Da Vinci: Machines in Motion," that includes 40 full-size replicas of some of these inventions. They were created by a team of scientists and artisans in conjunction with the Leonardo Da Vinci Museum in Florence, Italy, using only materials and tools that would have been available 500 years ago. The exhibit has traveled across Europe and North America. This is its only stop in Western Pennsylvania.

The machines are organized into four sections: Earth, Water, Air and Fire.

"His inventions are some of the primary roots of physics and mechanics and engineering that we use today," says Tim Buchanan, executive director of special initiatives at Cal U. "When you visit the exhibition, there's a series of very simple machines, all of which were not known at the time -- different types of gears and pulley mechanisms. Then, the exhibition begins to compound those to create these much more complex, extremely interesting machines."

One that immediately draws the eye, of course, is the tank. Hundreds of years before tanks began to dominate the battlefield in World War I, Da Vinci was designing armored vehicles.

"Putting together the tank is the most challenging," says Walt Czekaj, director of university exhibits at Cal U. "It's approximately 12 feet in diameter, and is round. It stands close to 12 feet tall, as well. We had to put it together out of 15 or so pieces, each of them weighing well over 250 pounds."

"Some of the individual pieces -- it took eight people to lift and maneuver them into place," Buchanan says.

Another favorite is Da Vinci's letterpress machine.

"It really incorporates the use of simple machines -- the screw and the lever," Czekaj says. "It also draws on gravity to make the process easier for man, and more consistent, as well. Visitors can operate the letterpress as it would have been done in the 1500s."

California University of Pennsylvania might seem like sort of an odd, out-of-the-way place for such a high-profile exhibit, but the university actually has been doing this for years.

"We've brought 14 major shows from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service," Buchanan says. "We've had students come in from five counties and farther away. When our numbers topped 27,000 (students and visitors), we actually received a nomination form the Institute of Museum and Library Service for a medal of honor in public service."

Student groups, in particular, are catered to. A lot of programming goes with each exhibit.

"Tim (Buchanan) likes to call it 'stealth learning,' " Czekaj says. "The kids are having so much fun that they don't realize the deeper and higher-level concepts that they're actually grasping."

"We had the Roberto Clemente 'Life Beyond Baseball' exhibition here," Buchanan says. "It was never in Pittsburgh, only out here. A huge number of people came.

We had activities that involved art, math, logic, reason and thinking. We had a group of students who were really interested in Clemente learn how his batting averages were done. They don't realize we're really teaching them statistics."

Additional Information:

'Leonardo Da Vinci: Machines in Motion'

When: Monday through May 6, noon-8 p.m. daily

Admission: Free

Where: South Conference Wing, Convocation Center, California University of Pennsylvania, California

Details: 724-938-5244 or www.calu.edu

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