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Decoding da Vinci
The 15th century genius’s Codex on the Flight of Birds makes its U.S. debut.

Pages from Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds (ca. 1490-1505, pen and brown ink on 18 bound sheets, 213 x 153 mm, Ms. Varia 95).
From the Collection of the Biblioteca Reale, Turin, and used with permission of the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali. Photographs by Fabrizio Fenucci/Y.

Leonardo da Vinci—the name brings to mind masterful works of 15th century art, like the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, and mathematical achievements such as the drawing of the Vitruvian Man, who with his arms outstretched has become the archetype for a human body of perfect proportions. The name also evokes feats and failures of engineering, from levers and gears to, perhaps most notably, plans for a flying machine. This September an exhibit at the Birmingham Museum of Art offers insight into the mind of the creative genius by displaying, among other items, his Codex on the Flight of Birds (on loan from the Biblioteca Reale in Turin, Italy)—a notebook revealing da Vinci’s fascination with flight.

Driven to discover how humans might fly, DaVinci was a birdwatcher who used his observations of species like the black kite and the European goldfinch to inform his engineering innovations. “He went straight to the heart of how birds fly, asking a series of very specific questions relating to [their] flight,” says Richard Prum, an ornithologist at Yale University. “It’s fantastic, almost eerie, how much progress he made.”

Since the Codex is extremely delicate, only these two pages of the actual notebook will be displayed in the exhibit.
Fabrizio Fenucci/Y

The Codex on the Flight of Birds, composed around 1505, contains the bulk of da Vinci’s musings on the subject. According to Jeannine O’Grody, curator of European art at the Birmingham (Alabama) Museum, it reveals “an innate understanding of certain aspects of birds that would not be confirmed [for] centuries.” Indeed, like many of his manuscripts, the Codex was more of a private journal than a book meant for publication. It was not until the early 1800s that the manuscript was finally reassembled and translated, so scientists living before then who were interested in flight “had to reinvent the wheel,” says Prum.

Today it’s clear da Vinci was on the right track. He anticipated Newton’s first law of motion (an object at rest remains at rest unless acted on by an outside force) and made astute observations about the mechanics of avian flight. He recognized that water and air behave similarly—they’re both fluids, a fact other scientists didn’t realize until centuries after da Vinci’s time. His lack of formal education, according to Plum, also insulated da Vinci from some of the misconceptions of his era (such as the theory that birds turned to stone and dropped to the bottoms of lakes during the winter—as we now know, they actually migrate).

Visitors will be able to experience the rest of the Codex as a virtual document: They can flip through it, read the text in reverse, and watch the drawings of birds come to life, their wings moving according to notes da Vinci made in the margins.
Fabrizio Fenucci/Y

Of course, Leonardo didn’t get everything right; there were some flaws in his understanding of how air pressure acted on a bird’s wing—unsurprising, considering the absence of a scientific community. “I feel certain that if we had had the opportunity to describe to him what we know [now] he would’ve gone, ‘Oh, why didn’t I think of that?!’ ” says Prum. “He was right there. One more notebook and he would’ve gotten it right.” But what can you expect from a man whose brain was occupied with countless other interests?

“One always gets in trouble when you try to define Leonardo,” says O’Grody, who has studied and lectured on da Vinci. “Whether it is geometry, geography, the human body, horse studies, on and on and on—optics, vision—it’s very hard to [characterize] him.” In da Vinci’s mind, everything was connected. “Even [the Codex] isn’t limited to flight,” says Prum—it includes musings about human flight, general movement, and levers. But, he adds, “as a description of how birds fly, it’s a landmark.”

Exhibit: Leonardo da Vinci: Drawings from the Biblioteca Real in Turin (featuring the Codex on the Flight of Birds and 11 drawings by the artist)
Dates: Sept. 28–Nov. 9, 2008
Location: Birmingham Museum of Art, 2000 Eighth Avenue North, Birmingham, Alabama 35203
Admission: Free
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Sunday, 12 p.m.–5 p.m.
Telephone: 205-254-2565
More information: Birmingham Museum of Art

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