Arts and Culture

Da Vinci exhibition elicits mixed reaction

Lisa Johnston

An international edu-exhibition about the work and achievements of Mona Lisa painter Leonardo da Vinci both impresses and disappoints.

The 25 Secrets of the Mona Lisa exhibit.

After touring 40 cities worldwide, from Kuala Lumpur to Budapest, Da Vinci – The Genius is in Gauteng, where it will stay until June 22. Prior to setting up in Woodmead, Johannesburg, the privately owned edu-exhibition had an extended run in Cape Town from November last year to March this year. It saw about 45 000 people traipse through its doors – to great acclaim, if the online guest book is anything to go by.

That Da Vinci was a genius is without doubt. His paintings were among the most influential of the Renaissance period and his Mona Lisa is one of the best known and loved art works of all times. 

Da Vinci’s mercurial nature saw him dabble in the roles of inventor, scientist, artist, anatomist, sculptor, engineer, musician, mathematician and architect. Many of his inventions must have seemed comical in 15th-century Italy, but are now acknowledged as being way ahead of their time. They range from fantastical (and impractical) flying machines, a type of submarine, shoes for walking on water, quick to assemble bridges for military operations, hydraulic pumps, reversible crank mechanisms and finned mortar shells to a steam cannon. Which raises the question: How does one effectively portray the lifetime achievements of a polymath in a way that is relevant and interesting to both children and adults? 

Da Vinci – The Genius makes a valiant effort by building replicas of Leonardo’s ideas based on the notes and drawings found in his codices (notebooks).  

Life-size exhibits
The exhibition boasts more than 200 pieces, including 75 life-size machine inventions. There are touch-screen presentations, which allow you to flip through pages from his codices and demonstrate some of the concepts behind his work – such as the principles of sacred geometry demonstrated in the Vitruvian Man

The promoters promise visitors the opportunity to “push, pull, crank and interact with many of the exhibits for a hands-on understanding of the scientific principles behind them”. 

In offering an appraisal of the exhibition, I feel it is necessary to take Da Vinci’s own words into consideration: “You do ill if you praise, but worse if you censure, what you do not understand.” I by no means understand the intricacies and economics of researching and staging a travelling exhibition. How does one fit a collection of displays and items into spaces of varying shapes and sizes? How does one maintain the condition of the exhibits on the road? How can you ensure that the information offered is interesting to a wide range of cultures and age groups? The variables must be boggling. 

What I do understand, however, is my own expectation and that that expectation is, to a large extent, based on my wallet. Having pre-booked my ticket for R140, I arrived at The Amazing Space in Woodmead. I paid R10 for safe parking and coughed up an additional R40 for the audio tour. Having spent just shy of R200, my expectations were to be wowed by an exhibition of international standards, something for which I am happy to fork out.Unfortunately I came away quite disappointed. 

Flying machines
On entering, the first section of exhibition features replicas of Da Vinci’s codices and mobile inventions, most notably his fascinating flying machines. The machines are well-built in wood and canvas and offer a believable representation given the date of their invention. I would have liked to be allowed to “push, pull or crank” some of these large-scale machines, but they are strictly hands off. 

The touch screen presentation of the codices is impressive and it was remarkable to see and try to interpret the “mirror image” writing for which Da Vinci is famous. The actual replicas of the codices, however, are not – the cheaply printed and glued together books reminded me of a school project. I also found the “replicas” of his paintings in this section to be of poor quality. 

This variable quality repeats itself throughout the exhibition. Some items are high-tech and inspiring, some are okay and some are really a bit shabby. 


The exhibition boasts more than 200 pieces, including 75 life-size machine inventions.

The second and more interactive section of the exhibition features Da Vinci’s musical inventions and some small-scale models of his experiments in engineering, which visitors are encouraged to “push, pull or crank”. I found this section cluttered and quite unremarkable – the models and their presentation had the feel of a school science fair. 

But the audio-visual presentation of the Vitruvian Man is fascinating and well thought out. 

War inventions
The third and final section of Da Vinci – The Genius showcases his war inventions, examples of his anatomical drawings gleaned from in-depth analysis of corpses, as well as studies of some of his art. I found this the most gratifying section and particularly enjoyed the animated audio-visual presentation of the Last Supper

The 25 Secrets of the Mona Lisa exhibit is also extremely interesting. The “secrets” have been gleaned from engineer-optician Pascal Cottee, whose multi-spectral, high-definition camera has visually peeled away the layers of hundreds of years of varnish, renovation and grime to reveal the painting in its original luminosity, colour and detail.  

In all I walked away after about two-and-a-half hours with mixed feelings. On the one hand I was disappointed. On the other I found the information relevant and interesting. It did take a lot of reading, though, which might prove challenging to an attention-deficit generation of children and teens. 

If money is not a consideration, I’d say go for it. But if it is, you could get similar information by staying home and renting a good documentary on the Renaissance giant. 

Da Vinci – The Genius is on at The Amazing Place in Woodmead, Johannesburg, until June 22. Tickets are R140 for adults and R90 for children under 18. Pensioners and students pay R110 and a family ticket (two adults and two children) is R400. For more information visit www.davinciexhibition.co.za.

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