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Leonardo da Vinci Experience, Leonardo da Vinci, Via della Conciliazione, exhibition, art, Renaissance art, museum

The First of Its Kind: “Leonardo da Vinci Experience” Museum

The “Leonardo da Vinci Experience” exhibition is the first of its kind–and the only one of its kind in the world–hosting a collection of da Vinci’s work.

The “Leonardo da Vinci Experience” museum is just steps away from the Vatican, on Via della Conciliazione. The exhibition is permanent, meaning that it is open year-round. It is the first of its kind–and the only one of its kind in the world–hosting a collection of da Vinci’s work from painted masterpieces to inventions, faithfully reproduced full-scale and according to techniques used in his time, some five hundred years ago. 

The museum provided a perfect refuge on one rainy Sunday in Rome. Upon entering, I found myself on the ground floor, which displays da Vinci’s grand flying machines. Lute music played in the background. It felt much like walking into a workshop or an attic. The setting is intimate, with its floor of wooden panels, soft recessed lighting overhead and illuminating each exhibit individually. The room is a play of light and shadows. Inventions sit side by side with some of the Renaissance master’s most iconic pieces: the Vitruvian Man juxtaposed by the Study for a Fly Wheel; Lady with an Ermine adjacent to the Anemoscope. At the far end of the entrance is an arched colonnade, behind which is projected a tranquil, Tuscan scene: da Vinci’s glider in motion across rolling green hills, white billowing clouds, and a bright blue sky. The Renaissance man par excellence, da Vinci is credited with anticipating a number of inventions that would only be realised centuries after his death, like his ‘self-propelled cart,’ forerunner to the automobile, which would make its debut some three centuries later.

“The Renaissance man par excellence, da Vinci is credited with anticipating a number of inventions that would only be realised centuries after his death.”

A true-to-life reproduction of the Last Supper occupies an entire wall on the left side facing away from the entrance. The painting, with its enigmatic subjects and their dynamic hand movements, continues to capture the imagination, even after centuries. It served as inspiration for American author Dan Brown, who scoured all its symbolic richness and depth and weaved the epic, fast-paced, thrilling tale for modern audiences, The Da Vinci Code. Within a single work of art from the Tuscan genius was enough material to intrigue spectators the world over, distant in both time and space from da Vinci himself.

“A true-to-life reproduction of the Last Supper occupies an entire wall on the left side facing away from the entrance.”

The flying machines, like the glider and ornithopter, are emblematic of the Renaissance humanism that characterises much of Leonardo da Vinci’s work–the belief in the inherent value of humans as individuals, and the efforts to realise human potential through education and emancipation. The Vitruvian Man places the individual–perfect in proportion–at the centre of the universe. Da Vinci believed that humans could eventually conquer the skies, and devised plans inspired by his study of bats and birds to achieve just that. His ambitions extended also to water–he designed webbed gloves, floats for walking on water, a life buoy.

Leonardo da Vinci Experience, Leonardo da Vinci, Via della Conciliazione, exhibition, art, Renaissance art, museum
“His ambitions extended also to water–he designed webbed gloves, floats for walking on water, a life buoy.”

Though a pacifist, da Vinci was nevertheless at the service of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and designed a number of war machines that were veritable predecessors to those of today, such as the armoured car, forerunner to the tank, and a weapon resembling a machine gun–a twelve barrelled gun carriage in the shape of a fan, which would maximise effectiveness in the battlefield. The room containing the war machines also features a room of mirrors–eight mirrored walls, which produce a real mise-en-abyme for the viewer, infinitely replicating reflections.

“Da Vinci…designed a number of war machines that were veritable predecessors to those of today, [including] a weapon resembling a machine gun–a twelve barrelled gun carriage in the shape of a fan.”

That a museum dedicated to da Vinci–a man whose sexuality is often speculated upon, who deviated from classic iconography, frequently butting heads with the very authorities who commissioned his pieces, and whose work elevated evidence and reason over dogma–should be mere steps away from the capital of one of the world’s major faiths was an observation I made with an amused sense of irony. It was testament to the triumph of those very ideals da Vinci and other humanists strived to convey in their work. 

Via della Conciliazione, with the Vatican in the distance.

Leonardo da Vinci’s works are scattered throughout the world today, in Krakow, Paris, London, Washington, DC, Munich, and Saint Petersburg. But to be able to behold his masterpieces, paintings and inventions alike, in one place, in such proximity to where he was active at the Vatican’s Cortile del Belvedere alongside contemporaries like Michelangelo and Raphael, is a unique experience. Visiting a museum in Rome is a mise-en-abyme of the sort in literary and film theory, a story within a story, an art gallery within another, larger open-air art gallery.

You can reach the Leonardo da Vinci Experience museum from Termini by taking Line A of the Rome Metro towards Battistini and getting off at the sixth stop, Ottaviano. From there, it is less than a fifteen minute walk. The second option is to take bus number 40 from Termini, which leaves every five minutes, and stop at Traspontina/Conciliazione. The area where the museum is located is dense with places to see. From the Vatican Museums to Castel Sant’Angelo and its famed gardens (Giardini di Castel Sant’Angelo/Parco della Mole Adriana), one could easily spend an entire day in this quarter of the city and still not exhaust its possibilities. Private and group tours of the Vatican and Sistine Chapel are available, and offer a perfect occasion to enjoy multiple experiences in the same vicinity. From March to June, the Scuderie del Quirinale–on Via Ventiquattro Maggio, not too far from the Vittoriano–will be hosting a similar exhibition entitled “Leonardo da Vinci: La scienza prima della scienza.” The exhibition aims to situate Leonardo da Vinci within the broader context of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, covering da Vinci’s contemporaries in order to paint a more complete picture of the scene and time period that led artists, engineers, and thinkers to flourish. This is surely another experience that is not to be missed.