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ART REVIEW : Da Vinci: Father of Invention

In 1938, that well-known fan of efficiency, Benito Mussolini, commissioned Leonardo da Vinci scholar Roberto Guatelli to build a series of models based on the inventions in Da Vinci’s notebooks. High-strung despot though he was, Mussolini recognized a good idea when he saw one and Da Vinci was a veritable mother lode of practical solutions to all manner of problems. While Mussolini’s career as a problem solver came to an abrupt halt in 1945, nearly all of Da Vinci’s ideas have enjoyed popular application at one point or another, and most have yet to be improved upon.

Guatelli’s exquisitely crafted models were acquired in 1951 by IBM, which packaged them into a permanently traveling exhibition that roams the world, taking up temporary residence at one museum after another. Fashioned out of oak, walnut, brass and bronze, Guatelli’s models have the allure of incredibly sophisticated toys, and in perusing the 24 pieces on view through April 14 in the gallery at Cal State Northridge, one can’t help getting caught up in Da Vinci’s staggeringly brilliant intellectual life.

Approaching science with an artist’s love of fantasy and physical beauty, Da Vinci had an uncanny eye for underlying patterns and systems, and was a firm believer in order. Accuracy and measurement were of paramount importance to him--as they were to the Renaissance as a whole. Coming on the tail of the hysterically irrational Dark Ages--which all but obliterated the achievements of classical Greece--the Renaissance was a period of intellectual reclamation, and nobody covered more ground in that department than Da Vinci.

An accomplished musician and athlete, he devised surgical and musical instruments, designed canal systems, boats and air-conditioning systems, and worked out detailed plans for a utopian community. Fascinated with automation and mass production, he invented machines for minting coins and polishing needles and, despite the fact that he was a devout pacifist, cooked up an arsenal of savage weaponry. (Apparently, the guy was a bit compulsive; if somebody asked, “How can we do this?’ he couldn’t prevent himself from coming up with an answer).

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Established as a painter in his early 20s, Da Vinci brought his training in the visual arts to bear on all his inventions, and applied the laws governing anatomical systems to a variety of design problems; he used sculpting techniques, for example, in casting to determine the exact form of the human brain.

The 24 models included in this hands-on show (viewers are encouraged to turn the knobs that kick the machines into action) represent but a fraction of Da Vinci’s inventions, but the show succeeds in conveying the scope of his genius. Highlights include a gear system that anticipated the transmission of the automobile, a parachute, a double-hulled ship (that would continue to float if the outer hull were damaged), and a scaling ladder with a gear system similar to those found on fire trucks.

Parents interested in introducing their children to the world of museums--and learning in general--should find this inspiring show an ideal outing.

And, if Da Vinci doesn’t interest you, there are two other marvelous shows in adjoining galleries, also on view through April 14. “The Toaster, A Design Metaphor: 1905-1945,” is a collection of vintage toasters, most of which look like much more fun than the ones we use today. Elaborate contraptions finished with elegant Art Nouveau and Deco patterning, these toasters are so complicated in their efforts to be streamlined and modern that you can’t help but love them.

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Also on exhibit is “Flytyers of California,” which showcases the handiwork of 14 masters of the unsung art of fashioning tiny fetishes designed to trick hungry fish.


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