Da Vinci: The Science and Secrets Behind History’s Most Brilliant Mind

Photography by Wes Battoclette

Many people know Leonardo da Vinci as the painter of the iconic “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper,” yet those examples are only the tip of da Vinci’s vast breadth of work. 

Da Vinci – The Genius is an interactive exhibition at Cincinnati Museum Center (CMC) through September 25. Da Vinci’s talents are presented through 17 themed galleries boasting more than 200 pieces, including more than 70 life-size inventions crafted by Italian artisans using the same techniques and materials from the Renaissance period. Visitors can push, pull, crank and interact with many pieces for a hands-on understanding of the science behind the genius. 

Although da Vinci continuously had incredible ideas, most of his brilliant inventions were never built. Instead, he meticulously described these inventions in his codices – tiny notebooks packed with drawings and writings on a variety of subjects. 

Italian artisans scoured more than 6,000 pages of da Vinci’s documentations, deciphering tricks the mastermind employed to keep his works secret. Among the discoveries lay blueprints for inventions including the helicopter, airplane, automobile, submarine and parachute. 

“We know da Vinci was an artist, but now we know he was much more: an inventor, sculptor, anatomist, engineer, musician – a true Renaissance man,” says Elizabeth Pierce, president and CEO of Cincinnati Museum Center. 

The most prominent component of the exhibit is arguably the “Secrets of the Mona Lisa” gallery, featuring the discoveries of French engineer and fine art examiner Pascal Cotte. An inventor himself, Cotte pioneered a new technique called the Layer Amplification Method (LAM), a revolutionary camera capable of capturing precise measurements, revealing the layers of paint. 

The Louvre Museum in Paris gave Cotte unprecedented access to the “Mona Lisa,” a piece that has intrigued the world for more than 500 years. After nearly 10 years of study, Cotte is presenting dozens of secrets he found through scientific analysis, all verified by Louvre curators.  

“I never imagined I’d be able to peel away the layers of paint like an onion, revealing the chronology of the painting and totally changing perceptions,” says Cotte. “I discovered the ‘Mona Lisa’ was made in four phases – not all at once.” 

For centuries the painting’s subject has widely been believed to be Lisa Gherardini, wife of a Florentine silk merchant. Cotte’s discoveries shatter this theory. 

“We thought we knew everything about the portrait of Lisa Gherardini and the ‘Mona Lisa,’ but da Vinci fooled us with the captivation of the subject’s smile and her mysterious gaze,” says Cotte. “This exhibition is the first presentation of these discoveries in the United States.” 

Cotte’s LAM technology captured 1,600 images of the painting, which Cotte subsequently studied in detail. The most groundbreaking discovery reveals that the “Mona Lisa” as we know her is painted overtop another portrait, which is believed to be the actual Lisa Gherardini, the “Mona Lisa” namesake. 

Cotte believes da Vinci was nearing the end of his life and, seeing the unfinished portrait of Lisa Gherardini in his workshop, decided to transform the painting into the “Mona Lisa” we know of today. 

The director of Museo Leonardiano in Vinci, Italy, fully supports Cotte’s discoveries; even so far as to say he isn’t surprised because da Vinci was always in the process of adding to and transforming his works of art. 

“If you look at the painting today, in the sky, you can see a faint outline of a hairpin – why would that be in the sky? After hours and hours of work I at last recognized a beautiful headdress with hairpins and pearls,” says Cotte. “It’s a wonderful portrait, but Leonardo left it unfinished, hiding everything through the hatching painting technique, which he invented.” 

Although these discoveries are remarkable, Cotte’s scrupulous studies are not complete – he is not finished with the “Mona Lisa” and is currently analyzing the painting’s landscape. 

“My studies of ‘Mona Lisa’ will take at least 3 to 4 more years,” says Cotte. “I suspect the landscape holds many hidden secrets.” 

The CMC exhibition showcases 25 of Cotte’s most compelling revelations, plus 40 super-magnified, high-resolution sectional images so visitors can explore every aspect of the work. 

Guests will experience other highlights including reproductions of “Virgin of the Rocks,” “The Annunciation,” the controversial new da Vinci discovery “Bella Principessa” and da Vinci’s famous fresco “The Last Supper,” displayed at actual size (29 feet by 14.5 feet) with educational animation presentations. 

 The interactive exhibition presents the timeless blend of science, technology, engineering, art and culture in a way that inspires visitors to pursue knowledge and dare to dream. 

“Da Vinci was onto something, as we all should strive to be,” says Pierce. “As modern Renaissance men and women, we’re not bound by what we do or do not know; but driven by an insatiable curiosity to know more, and that’s what Da Vinci – The Genius is all about.” 

Da Vinci – The Genius is open through September 25 at CMC. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.cincymuseum.org/exhibits/da-vinci-the-genius.

Cincinnati Museum Center is located at 1301 Western Avenue, Cincinnati OH 45203. You can reach them at 513.287.7000, by email at information@cincymuseum.org or visit their website at www.cincymuseum.org