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Spending a day with da Vinci in Laurel

Now’s your chance to spend some time with a true Renaissance Man. Until Nov. 11, you can head over to Fifth Avenue and Seventh Street in historic downtown Laurel and spend the day perusing Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches, inventions, and most-recognizable masterpieces — replicas, of course. I went last week with a school group and can vouch for the wow-factor of the exhibit. All 50 of us were thoroughly impressed.

Da Vinci Machines is an award-winning exhibition that’s traveled the world, with showings in cities as far flung as Venice, Hong Kong, Detroit, Sydney, Hollywood and Charlotte. Somehow, the good folks at the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Laurel got a turn with it, too. And when I say good folks, I mean it. There’s no charge to see the temporary exhibits or anything else at the museum. It’s donation only.

So our group took advantage of all the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art had to offer, beginning with the lobby. It features a beautiful hand-molded plaster ceiling done by French artist Leon Hermant and a gift shop with lots of things to tell kids not to touch. A wonderful docent then led us into the Reading Room, where we learned the museum’s backstory. It’s a sad one involving young Lauren Rogers, a Princeton-educated Laurel native who in 1921 died from appendicitis complications. Rogers’ family established the museum in his memory, building on the foundation that was intended to be a home for Lauren and his new bride.       

We then moved through the different galleries, where we saw magnificent oil paintings, Japanese block prints, Georgian silver and a remarkable collection of Native American baskets. The one that got the most attention had to be viewed under magnification. (Yes, a basket.)   

But these days the real draw at the Lauren Rogers Museum is the da Vinci exhibit. That Leonardo was really something, as we say down here in the South. Not only was he an Italian Renaissance master painter, but he was a centuries-ahead-of-his-time inventor as well. A true genius. The kind of mind that laid the foundation for some of civilization’s most impactful innovations, like the airplane, submarine, parachute and bicycle. The exhibition showcases 75 of these wonders — all inspired by his drawings — including the scuba suit, spring-powered car, hang glider and aerial screw, a precursor to the modern-day helicopter.

Historical documents reveal that da Vinci commissioned local artisans to construct a few of the machines he designed. Unfortunately, none of these machines have survived to the present day. The machines displayed in Laurel were constructed by a modern team of Florentine artisans. They paid attention to detail to reflect da Vinci’s objectives, and they used only materials available in his day — wood, cotton, brass, iron and cord.

The machines are presented in five interactive areas: Flying Machines, War Machines, Nautical & Hydraulic Machines, Civil Engineering Solutions and Robotics. In another spot, visitors can examine copies of the rare codices, Codex Atlanticus (1478-1519) and Codex on Anatomy (1502-1513). (A codex, by the way, is a notebook.) All 15 of da Vinci’s known masterpieces are part of the exhibit, too, in the form of high-quality reproductions that fill the museum’s lower level. And for those with ample time on their hands, computer animations and film clips are available in seated viewing stations.

The neat thing about this exhibit (besides the fact that it’s top-notch educational fare) is that it appeals to all ages. One reason is the easy-to-understand explanations that are posted throughout both floors. Dads as well as their miniature dawdlers were reading and touching and trying out as many of the built-to-scale machines as they could.

And while my preschool granddarlings thought the machines were really cool, the thing that made them smile the most was the Mona Lisa, the one with the cut-out face for photo ops. No wonder. More than 6 million people visit the Louvre in Paris each year to see the original. What a delight to have her, and all the other da Vinci marvels, close by.   

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.