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Da Vinci’s genius on display at Springs Preserve

He’s the ultimate Renaissance Man.

Almost 500 years after his death, Leonardo da Vinci remains an instantly recognizable artist. (Three words: the “Mona Lisa.” Three more: “The Last Supper.”)

But a new exhibit at the Springs Preserve highlights the great da Vinci’s scientific side.

“Leonardo da Vinci: Machines in Motion,” at the preserve’s Origen Museum through May 4, reflects his genius as inventor, architect, engineer and all-around visionary through 40 machines inspired by his designs.

Most are not only life-size but interactive, enabling visitors to reach out and touch devices that presage many modern conveniences we 21st-century types take for granted.

Does your car have rack-and-pinion steering? Crank the wheel of da Vinci’s version, which he dreamed up around 1480.

Have you ever fed a penny into a metal press and watched the rollers flatten it, then stamp an image on it? In the Springs Preserve exhibit, there’s a metal rolling mill — with a da Vinci design that dates to about 1500 — that does the same thing. And his chain-drive transmission design, from about 1497, uses principles that power bicycles even today.

Or look upward and ponder the flying machines suspended from the ceiling. A helicopterlike vertical ornithopter (from about 1487-90) sports four blades reminiscent of a windmill’s arms, while a gliderlike variation (circa 1493-95) boasts outstretched canvas-and-wood wings modeled on those of bats and raptors.

“When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the Earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been and there you will always long to return,” one of the exhibit’s panels quotes da Vinci, imagining human flight.

From an armored car (1483-85) that anticipates the mechanized tank (which debuted more than 400 years later, during World War I) to a hydraulic sawmill, da Vinci’s visionary devices remind visitors, young and old, of his genius.

“What da Vinci does for us — he connects art and science and history,” says Aaron Micallef, Springs Preserve’s curator of exhibits.

(By contrast, a renowned scientist such as Albert Einstein connects “engineering and history,” he adds, but Einstein’s not exactly known for his artistic prowess — although he did play the violin.)

Clearly, there’s a reason why “between five and eight da Vinci exhibits are touring the world” these days, Micallef says.

One, titled “Da Vinci — The Genius,” visited The Venetian in 2012, but “that looked at both art and engineering,” he says. “This one looks exclusively at his engineering.”

Another key difference: The majority of the models on display at the Springs Preserve exhibit are life-size — including a knight-in-armor automaton, jokingly labeled as “an armor-clad C-3PO,” who bows to visitors as they gaze at his gear-driven innards.

Most of the models are designed to be touched, and tested, as visitors experience the three-dimensional representations of da Vinci’s two-dimensional drawings.

You can clamber inside the armored car, or roll ball bearings (still used in everything from skateboards to computer hard drives), observing the ways in which da Vinci’s principles operate in real life.

“Please manipulate these machines,” a sign at the start of the exhibit reads, “but gently, with respect and care.”

The machines are crafted by hand, constructed of wood by artisans who used tools and other materials available in da Vinci’s time.

They were made by Worldwide Museum Activities — founded in Florence, Italy, by three scientists who dreamed of rebuilding replicas of the machinery described in da Vinci’s drawings.

After being exhibited at a da Vinci museum in Florence, the display spent three years in Europe and has been touring North America for about seven years, according to Reagan Johns, lead technician for Texas-based Evergreen Exhibitions, which purchased the exhibit.

“It’s as low-tech as possible,” Johns says. “It’s different, because it’s all wood.”

As such, da Vinci’s machines gleam in the light as Johns and two fellow technicians use contemporary, battery-powered tools to prepare the exhibit for Springs Preserve visitors.

“Leonardo da Vinci: Machines in Motion” is divided into four sections devoted to earth, water, air and fire — regarded as the four essential elements of life in the visionary inventor’s day.

As one of the display panels quotes da Vinci: “If a man is composed of earth, water, fire and air, this body of earth is the same.”

The exhibit’s hands-on nature is ideal for Springs Preserve visitors, according to Micallef.

“Because of the demographic we get — which is primarily families — we always shoot to have something interactive,” he says.

And with the “learn-by-doing experience” of the display, “Mom or Dad is taking time to explain the concepts in a way the kids will understand,” the curator adds. “It’s an opportunity for us to talk about a variety of subjects,” including “engineering, history, construction, earth-moving.”

And, of course, the imagination of a Renaissance man who wrote these words: “I wish to work miracles.” With his mind, he did.

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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