Machines in Motion: Da Vinci's genius on display at CalU

Full-size re-creations of 40 of his inventions

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He is famous for his paintings, including the "Mona Lisa" and "The Last Supper," but Leonardo da Vinci also was known as "the original Renaissance man," with a diverse range of talents and skills.

And although he also was celebrated as a scientist, botanist and engineer, it's da Vinci's genius as an inventor that's being showcased at California University of Pennsylvania through a new exhibit called Leonardo da Vinci: Machines in Motion.

"He was far ahead of his time," said Walter P. Czekaj, university director of special exhibitions. "A lot of the things he invented are still in use today."

The exhibit, which opened to the public on Monday, features 40 full-size, interactive machines that were painstakingly re-created through da Vinci's drawings, including an armored tank, a primitive robot and even a helicopter.

Artisans in Florence, Italy, used the same materials and tools that would have been available to da Vinci, who lived from 1452 to 1519.

"He worked for a number of wealthy and powerful people," Tim Buchanan, university executive director of special initiatives, said of da Vinci, the illegitimate son of an Italian notary who was raised by a single mother. "He was earning his living through his inventions."

The exhibit, located in the college's new convocation center, is split into four elements: earth, air, water and fire.

The inventions range from simplistic ball bearings, levers and gyroscopes to sophisticated machines such as water pumps, a hydraulic saw and several types of flying machines -- the designs of which were used later by the Wright brothers.

Even though modern breech-loaded machine guns didn't appear until the Civil War -- more than three centuries after da Vinci's death -- he invented a multibarrel gun that is part of the display.

The inventions offer only a brief glimpse into the genius of da Vinci, who left behind about 30,000 pages of notes and drawings about everything from anatomy to solar energy to defense strategies. Only about 6,000 pages still exist.

"How could anyone come through this exhibit and not leave inspired by something?" Mr. Buchanan said.

Perhaps most importantly, the exhibit is kid-approved.

"I think it's really cool," said 13-year-old Dan Babyak of Perryopolis, who visited the exhibit Monday with his parents, Tim and Maryjo Babyak. "I really wish someone could have tried his flying machines in his time."

Mr. Czekaj has developed six hours of educational programming associated with the exhibit that's geared toward students at various age levels.

He can also specially design curriculum and programs for home-schooled children and for certain units of standardized tests.

"[Mr. Czekaj] likes to call it stealth learning," Mr. Buchanan said, because students can experiment with scientific disciplines, like physics, while having fun with the many hands-on activities.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. also has allowed the university access to its educational programs about da Vinci, and the exhibit features a video made by The History Channel.

"The thing about this exhibit is that it's not just designed to be about learning," Mr. Buchanan said. "It's about loving to learn."

The exhibit has been on tour throughout Europe and North America for the past six years; more than 550,000 people visited it in Mexico City, but California University will be the only place in southwestern Pennsylvania to see it.

The university also has hosted more than a dozen Smithsonian Institution programs in the past several years, and has plans to launch various other new exhibits through this year.

Now is a good time for families and groups to visit the exhibit, before students return to classes on Jan. 23.

Admission is free and the exhibit will be open daily from noon to 8 p.m. through May 6. Parking is available on campus, along with a shuttle service to the convocation center. More information, including a video about the exhibit, is available at www.calu.edu. To arrange a group tour or educational field trip, contact Mr. Czekaj at 724-938-5244 or czekaj@calu.edu.


Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867.


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