A rare avian landed Friday at the National Air and Space Museum. “Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds” will be on display until Oct. 22.
Despite the title, “Leonardo, in fact, did not give any title to his codex,” said Giovanni Saccani, director of the Royal Library of Turin. “The codex has left Italy only three times in 120 years.”
Written between 1505 and 1506 when da Vinci was working in the court of Milan, and painting the “Mona Lisa,” the codex was broken up and pages sold piecemeal after his death.
Passing through several hands, the codex was listed at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan in 1637. More than a century later, in 1796, Napoleon Bonaparte had the manuscript sent to Paris. In the mid-1800s, a book lover removed pages and sold them in London. In 1892, a Russian reunited most of the book.
Later, after additional missing pages were discovered and added, the complete codex ended up at the Biblioteca Reale in Turin, Italy. The Biblioteca Reale also holds a da Vinci self-portrait from 1512.
The da Vinci Codex on display (Tish Wells/MCT)
This is the second time it has come to the United States.
Italian journalist Silvia Rosa-Brusin, the Royal Library of Turin and the Italian space agency approached California’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) to put a “digital scan of the codex on a chip and put it on the Mars Curiosity rover,” said JPL Director Charles Elachi. “So we can truly say Leonardo is on Mars.”
A video about the codex titled “Leonardo’s Flight” was produced for the Smithsonian for the exhibit by Rosa-Brusin for Rai Radiotelevisione Italia.
The codex — a small 8-by-6-inch notebook — is being shown next to the exhibit on early aviators, the Wright Brothers and the Wright Flyer. Three tablets nearby enable visitors to leaf through the 18 pages electronically, with an English translation on the left and Italian on the right. During the first week, there will be timed ticketing. No photography or videotaping will be permitted.
Amid the technical drawings and “mirror writing” is proof that da Vinci reused his paper. One page has a grocery list, which includes “pollo,” or chicken.
Da Vinci was fascinated with all aspects of flight.
Peter L. Jakab, chief curator of the National Air and Space Museum, said da Vinci produced more than 34,000 words and 500 sketches dealing with flying machines and the nature of air and bird flight, scattered over his “many writings.”
Soaring near the codex is a reconstruction of da Vinci’s design for an ornithopter — a man in a winged harness — on loan from Finmeccanica.
‘“From military tactics he became interested in aerial reconnaissance. Most of Leonardo's aeronautical designs were ornithopters, machines that employed flapping wings for lift and propulsions,” Jakab said. But “the fundamental barrier of a ornithopter is the demonstrable limited muscle power and endurance of humans compared with birds.”
In other words, no amount of flapping would ever make a human fly.
LEONARDO DA VINCI’S CODEX ON THE FLIGHT OF BIRDS
National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.
10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; timed ticketing for the first week.