The Da Vinci codex: Treasured sketches of flight on rare display at Smithsonian

In his “Codex on the Flight of Birds,” Leonardo da Vinci made a detailed study of the mechanics of bird flight and concluded that if birds could do it, so could humans, if only they could make a flying machine.

“A bird is an instrument working according to mathematical law, an instrument which is within the capacity of man to reproduce with all its movements,” he wrote.

Some 397 years later, Wilbur and Orville Wright proved da Vinci right.

So it’s appropriate that da Vinci’s dream and the men who eventually fulfilled it should come together, as they do for the first — and perhaps the only — time, for 40 days, starting Friday at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

Da Vinci’s handwritten 18-sheet, 8-by-6-inch codex (or notebook), a highly protected national treasure that is rarely displayed in public even in Italy, will be on view a few yards away from the 1903 Flyer in which the Wright Brothers made the first controlled-power flight in a heavier-than-air machine — in other words, a plane.

Written in 1505 and 1506, da Vinci’s codex, with, in the margin, hundreds of his own sketches of birds and designs of flying contraptions amounts to a prophetic treatise on aerodynamics and the principles of mechanical flight that was centuries before its time.

It also testifies to the amazing range of da Vinci’s genius, which included architecture, engineering, botany and mathematics, as well as painting the “Mona Lisa,” and the exquisite portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, now at the National Gallery and incidentally the only da Vinci painting in the United States.

Visitors can see a two-page spread of the codex (Pages 10 and 11) encased in a climabox, a climate-controlled display case used by museums to protect fragile works on paper on exhibition. The pages are covered with da Vinci’s famous mirror writing, and the language is Renaissance Italian. “Unless you have a mirror and can read Renaissance Italian, an English version reproduction of the whole text is available on nearby monitors,” said the museum’s chief curator, Peter Jakab, who is overseeing the exhibition.

Leafing through the text, one comes across da Vinci’s design for a huge wing-flapping machine, called an ornithopter, operated by a man lying flat on a plank and using hand levers, foot pedals and a system of pulleys; the artist/inventor’s theories on the scientific concept of lift, the force that makes machine flight a possibility; and his observation that lightweight materials would be needed for flying machines.

He also considers the safety of the pilot, designing the first parachute, which resembled a kite, and the first airbag, which was filled with water.

Loan of the codex from the Royal Library in Turin, Italy, is a feature of the Year of Italian Culture, a wide-ranging program of Italian cultural offerings and performances in more than 50 U.S. cities. Claudio Bisogniero, Italy’s ambassador to the United States, said, “Bringing Leonardo da Vinci’s codex to Washington in 2013 means hosting a dialogue between the Renaissance and modernity, tradition and innovation.”

If the codex does nothing else, it shows a man obsessed with flight. “Once you have tasted flight,” da Vinci wrote, “you will forever walk the Earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”

The codex was the nearest he got to the actual experience. Peter Jakab said there is no evidence that any of da Vinci’s designs were built, and still less that he flew in any of them.

Based on his findings, da Vinci surely deserves to be called the father of aviation. The snag is that the little notebook containing his forward-thinking ideas was lost for hundreds of years after his death in 1519, and did not resurface until the 19th century — by which time others had arrived independently at what da Vinci originally discovered.

From the 16th to the 19th centuries, da Vinci’s manuscripts, numbering thousands of pages, including the codex, were dispersed through extraordinary twists and turns, including sales — sometimes of individual pages from disassembled notebooks — losses, inheritances and thefts. By 1637, the “Codex on the Flight of Birds” had ended up in a library in Milan.

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