Leonardo da Vinci Sketches Go on Display in the U.S. for the First Time

Pages of the “Codex Atlanticus” provide a rare glimpse into the Renaissance icon’s imagination and scientific prowess

Exhibition at MLK Library
A free exhibition in Washington, D.C., shows 12 pages from the multi-volume collection of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks called the Codex Atlanticus. Ralph Alswang via D.C. Public Library

You won’t see any paintings at the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at Washington, D.C.’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. Instead, lining the walls are a series of sketches detailing the Renaissance icon’s plans for a digging machine, mechanical wings and a self-propelling cart.

These are just a few of the many designs and studies in da Vinci’s notebooks, 12 pages of which are now on display in the United States for the first time. Titled “Imagining the Future,” the free exhibition spotlights the artist’s imagination and scientific prowess.

“He was really an engineer first, and he fancied himself a painter secondarily, so these drawings really, I think, stress his obsession with motion, with machines,” Richard Reyes-Gavilan, the D.C. public library system’s executive director, tells NBC4’s Derrick Ward and Andrea Swalec.

Sketches on wall at the exhibition
Too much light exposure can damage the fragile pages, which will be stored in darkness for three years after the exhibition closes in August. Ralph Alswang via D.C. Public Library

The drawings are a small sample of the more than 1,000 pages of the Codex Atlanticus, the 12-volume collection of da Vinci’s notebooks compiled in the 16th century by the sculptor Pompeo Leoni. Created between 1478 to 1519, the Codex Atlanticus’ writing and sketches cover everything from weaponry to botany. 

“It’s not just beauty for beauty, but it’s beauty applied to life,” says Alberto Rocca, director of the art gallery of Milan’s Biblioteca Ambrosiana, which houses the Codex Atlanticus, to NPR’s A. Martínez and Michel Martin.

The show accommodates only 15 guests at once, so visitors should expect a wait. Those interested in seeing the sketches can sign up at the front desk and receive a text when their turn arrives. 

On another floor of the library, children can visit an installation called “Leonardo’s Lab” to learn about da Vinci through hands-on projects.

Exhibitions at D.C.’s libraries often focus on historically overlooked artists, rather than big names like da Vinci, which is why Reyes-Gavilan was initially hesitant about the show, he tells Washingtonian’s Malcolm Ferguson. “But frankly, it didn’t take a long time for me to get really excited about the possibility of introducing Leonardo to an audience that may never see him in a museum setting,” he says. “And they may never, regardless of whether they go to museums or not, see something like this ever again.” 

The delicate pages of the Codex Atlanticus can only survive limited light exposure without damage, which is why the exhibition runs for only two months. After that, they’ll spend the next three years in the dark, reports Chelsea Cirruzzo for Axios

Seeing da Vinci’s notebooks in the U.S. is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, Reyes-Gavilan tells HuffPost’s Philip Lewis.

“Many people consider Leonardo da Vinci not only one of the greatest minds of our history but the [greatest]. Most of his work is in these notebooks,” he says. “It’s not the sort of thing that you can just sort of stumble upon if you’re visiting New York or Chicago or somewhere else. It’s here for a precious short amount of time, and you’ll probably never see them again.”

Imagining the Future” is on view at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C. through August 20.

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