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Leonardo da Vinci at the British Library: considering ‘the urgency of doing’

Image credit: Diomedia

Review of the ongoing British Library exhibition, 'Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion'.

“Leonardo Da Vinci is still a source of inspiration for engineers and designers,” says Luca Borgogno, design director, Automobili Pininfarina, one of Italy’s leading automotive design companies, based in Turin. I am talking to Borgogno in the courtyard of the New British Library minutes before the press opening of the new exhibition, 'Leonardo Da Vinci. A Mind in Motion', of which Automobili Pininfarina is the main sponsor.

The exhibition can be considered unique for it displays – for the first time in the UK's history – selected sheets from all three of Leonardo’s notebooks (or ‘codexes’): ‘Arundel’, kept at the British Library; ‘Forster II’, from the Victoria and Albert Museum; and ‘Leicester’, kindly lent to the exhibition by its owner Bill Gates.

Borgogno did not come to London empty-handed. He brought with him a brand-new 1,900hp zero-emission Battista electric car, which he designed. It is claimed to be the world’s first electric luxury hypercar, capable of speeds up to 217mph, with acceleration faster than a Formula One car and a 300-mile electric range on a single charge. The car, which will go into production next year, was delivered to the Library’s courtyard on board a Pininfarina van, to be displayed there for the duration of the exhibition.

At first, I find it hard to establish a connection between Leonardo’s half-millennium-old notebooks and a super-modern hypercar. That connection, however, becomes clear after a tour of the exhibition, led by one of its curators, Dr Andrea Clarke.

Walking through the darkened exhibition halls, with Leonardo’s extraordinary and beautifully preserved notes and drawings displayed inside brightly-lit glass cases, is an unforgettable experience. It is almost like entering into a conversation with one of history’s greatest geniuses. Looking at his thoroughly recorded and illustrated studies - ranging from water flow to geometry, from mechanics to astronomy, from optics and architecture to percussion, and 'an underwater breathing apparatus' - is indeed like having a unique insight right into Leonardo’s incredible mind and its remarkable modus operandi.

“Leonardo Da Vinci was, first and foremost, a thinker – a dynamic, meticulous and physical thinker,” explains Dr Clarke. “He kept coming back to his drawings endlessly and his approach was always both in-depth and creative.”

I found Leonardo’s observations on water from Codex Leicester particularly revealing. He was obviously fascinated by the sheer dynamics of water flow and other forms of natural motion, which, as he believed, could be recreated in both technology and arts. Indeed, Da Vinci’s best-known paintings, some of which are also on display at the exhibition, are extremely dynamic in their contents, with everyone and everything, including human hair (the dynamics of which he thought was similar to that of water), moving constantly.

“Da Vinci believed that the microcosm of human body is reflected in the macrocosm of the Earth and that it was possible to recreate nature,”  says Dr Clarke. “Looking at his notes is like watching him thinking on paper.”

Suddenly, it all becomes clear to me: this whole spectacular display is a celebration of motion - both in nature and inside the mind and soul of an artist, a scientist or an engineer.

Indeed, 'A Mind in Motion” - the concept so powerfully represented by the life and work of Leonardo Da Vinci, the most versatile and dynamic of all the history’s polymaths – remains the main vehicle of progress and creativity in the present-day high-tech world of ours.

As I exit back into the Library’s courtyard, the presence of the Battista electric car there - as a magnificent modern (and very practical) engineering embodiment of the eternal concept of motion - starts making perfect sense to me. Wasn’t it Leonardo himself who once spoke about “the urgency of doing” and stated famously: “Being willing is not enough; we must do...”?

The British Library’s 'Leonardo Da Vinci. A Mind in Motion' exhibition is open from 7 June to 8 September 2019

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