Video: Da Vinci decoded

By Bob Faw Correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/8/2006 8:21:07 PM ET 2006-05-09T00:21:07

“Genius” puts it mildly.

An artist of the sublime, Leonardo da Vinci was also an inventor extraordinaire — the first to envision robots, automobiles and submarines. Five-hundred years before the Wright brothers, he imagined flying machines, helicopters and hang gliders. Uneducated, he mastered anatomy, architecture, hydraulics, optics.

“Practical, poetic and visionary,” says Kurt Haunfelner, the vice president of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, “I think da Vinci is completely in a class by himself."

In Italy, where they're as passionate about Leonardo as we are about Lincoln, Leonardo 3, a young design team in Milan, was given unprecedented access to the Codex Atlanticus, Leonardo's closely guarded notebooks, in which he designed hundreds of machines he hoped to build.

Using high-resolution technology — and a computer pen with a red feather, a la Leonardo — they transformed more than 100 drawings into 3-D graphics.

The 21st century wizards were dazzled by what he'd done in the 15th century, says Mario Taddei, the co-founder of Leonardo 3. 

“Every kind of machine we have nowadays is something that we can say is coming from the drawings of Leonardo. Everything,” he says.

Their efforts are now displayed for the first time in America, at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. They include 60 wooden models, built the way Leonardo designed them — like his state-of-the-art catapult — along with computerized sketches where, to enter the mind of Leonardo, visitors have only to touch a button.

“I can actually focus in on one of the designs,” Haunfelner says. “And I can go to the Codex page, I can pull the design up and I can see it in three dimensions. I can turn it right, left, and I can animate it.”

Back home in Italy, there is quiet satisfaction that at last we are learning to appreciate Leonardo the way they always have.

“Every time I open a page of the Codex Atlanticus,” says Taddei, “I stay there for hours."

The tools of today are being used to appreciate the genius of yesterday — which, even now, is unsurpassed.

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